Saturday, April 28, 2012

Hilarity on the High Seas

“The Pirates!” Skewers the Myths By Skip Sheffield The most entertaining movie out this weekend is an animated feature aimed at a younger audience. “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is the title, and it blows away anything in Disney’s shallow “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. “The Pirates” has a screenplay by British author Gideon Dafoe, who may or may not be related to famous author who created “Robinson Crusoe.” It’s a cool name regardless, and Defoe has authored four books so far skewering and spoofing the myths and conventions of pirates. The movie is based loosely on the first book, “The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists,” which explains how Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria and an extinct flightless bird can be worked into the same plot. Educated adults will also discover references to Karl Marx, Napoleon, Jane Austen and Charles Merrick the “Elephant Man.” Clearly this Columbia-Sony Animated collaboration is not a children’s film, though it can be enjoyed as such. Hugh Grant heads a cast of celebrity voices as the Pirate Captain, a vain, bumbling but lovable leader of a motley crew of misfits on the high seas in the year 1837. The Captain has the requisite luxuriant beard. He wields a gleaming cutlass, dines on ham and swigs grog with his mates, but he is not doing so well in the booty department. Amassing the largest amount of booty- treasure to you landlubbers- is key to winning the coveted Pirate of the Year competition the Pirate captain has failed to win in more than 20 years of trying. It’s an overblown extravaganza that is kind of a cross between a Miss America pageant and American Idol. The Captain faces stiff competition from Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and the Elvis-like Pirate King himself (Brian Blessed). A chance encounter with famed Origin of the Species explorer-scientist Charles Darwin leads to a realization the Captain may have something more valuable than silver or gold. Bonus points to those who spot right away what kind of bird the Captain’s loyal, pudgy Polly is. The discovery will take the captain and his crew of stereotypical pirates (none has a proper name) to London and an encounter with Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and Darwin’s ingenious, sign-flipping mute monkey BoBo. The plot description is nowhere near as funny as the actual execution. “The Pirates!” is rife with absurd modern references that add to its clever, wacky, smart-aleck appeal. A Not-So-Hot "Five-Year Engagement On the other hand we have the “adult” comedy “Five-Year Engagement,” which is really more juvenile than grown-up. Jason Segal, who also co-wrote the script with director Nicolas Stoller, stars as Tom Solomon, a San Francisco sous chef who yearns to have a restaurant of his own. Emily Blunt is his patient, brainy fiancĂ©e, Violet Barnes. The film begins with Tom’s romantic rooftop proposal to Violet with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop. From there it goes downhill after Violet enrolls in grad school at the University of Michigan and Tom follows. “Five-Year Engagement” is another raunchy, vulgar Judd Apatow production. If it weren’t for delicate, lovely Emily Blunt, it would have no class at all. Sure, there are some laughs, but they are the crude, snickering kind. The movie goes on far too long. We get it already. Romantic relationships are hard to maintain, especially when partners are on divergent paths. “Monsieur Lazhar” a Melancholy Valentine for Teachers “Monsieur Lazhar” is a heartfelt class act about the joy of teaching, the pain of loss and the difficulties of dislocation. Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is a recent Algerian immigrant to French-speaking Montreal. The story begins with a shocking tableau of a teacher’s apparent suicide in her own classroom. The students are traumatized and in a state of shock. The school’s principal is a rigid, politically-correct worrywart. In fact the whole school is rigidly politically-correct and mandatorily feminist. Into this situation comes Monsieur Lazhar, who volunteers his services as substitute teacher when no one else will. Lazhar has a natural knack for teaching and relating to children, but inevitably he will run afoul of school policy and his own difficult situation. “Monsieur Lazhar” has beautiful, moving performances by its juvenile actors and convincing portrayals by the adults. It is a melancholy salute to education in a changing world.

Houdini Lives Again in Miami

Harry Houdini Makes a Limited Appearance in Miami By Skip Sheffield “Death and Harry Houdini” makes the round-trip from Boca Raton to Miami entirely worthwhile, because through May 20, the only place you can see this amazing show is the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. “Houdini” is a play with music, magic, comedy and a great sense of history, written and directed by Nathan Allen of the House Theatre of Chicago. The playwright-director himself introduced “Houdini,” which is a collaborative effort developed over the past ten years. It is a technically complex show, yet the cast and crew in Miami made it look easy; even Houdini’s most famous and dangerous trick, the escape from the “Water Torture Cell” locked under water, upside down. Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was the greatest escape artist of all time, and during the earliest part of the 20th century, the highest-paid performer in vaudeville. There was a lot more to Houdini the man, which the audience learns in the exposition of the play. Houdini, played by award-winning magician Dennis Watkins, was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, the son of a rabbi. The family emigrated to America; first to Wisconsin and later to New York City. Houdini began as a brothers act with younger brother Theodore (Shawn Pfautsch). When a showgirl named Bess (Carolyn Defrin) danced into his life, she became his onstage partner and assistant. There was a great love between Harry and Bess, but there was a third part to a triangle: Harry’s mother Cecilia (Marika Mashburn), whom he adored. In fact you could call Houdini a mama’s boy. Mashburn plays the scowling matriarch to great comic effect. Each of the supporting cast serves as a musician and onstage assistant on the illusions that are performed as part of the show. They include a Ringmaster, played by Johnny Arena, a Death figure who doubles as a rival magician (Kevin Stangler) and two female ensemble members (Abu Ansari and Trista Smith). Houdini was not only one of the greatest magicians who ever lived; he also debunked fraudulent magicians and so-called spiritualists. Yet Houdini was convinced there is an “other side” in which it could be possible to communicate with the dead. A subtheme of the play is the defeat of the inevitability of death. Houdini inevitably did die at the young age of 52 in 1926, but America and the world are richer for his artistry and imagination. My brother Richard and I have a special fondness for Houdini, as our paternal grandfather used to tell us how he saw Houdini perform live when he was a young man, executing his famed escape from chains underwater in the Hudson River. You don’t have to be that kind of special fan, but “Houdini” is wonderful entertainment for anyone who enjoys amazement and surprise. Tickets start at $40. Call 305-949-6722 or go to

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Biscuit Blues in Boca

A First “Biscuit Fest” at Funky Biscuit Boca Raton

By Skip Sheffield

The blues blossom in downtown Boca this Thursday, April 12 through Saturday, April 14 at the first “Biscuit Fest,” to be held at the Funky Biscuit at Royal Palm Place.
Featured acts are Room Full of Blues with David Shelley & Bluestone Thursday; The Lee Boys with Michael Allman and the Funky Biscuit All-Stars Friday and Jimmy Thackery & the Drivers with Sistah Mary Beth Saturday.
“We’ve been doing well with jazz at the Funky Biscuit,” said manager-partner Al Poliak. “We want to be known as the source for all kinds of popular music in Boca: blues, funk, jazz and jam bands. This will be our biggest show with the biggest names yet. We hope to offer even more variety next year”
Room Full of Blues is one of the longest-running acts in blues music. The group was founded in Rhode Island in 1967 and has played continuously with a changing cast of characters (more than 50 musicians so far) playing driving, horn-based power blues.
Singer Phil Pemberton is one of the newest members of the club, having joined two and a half years ago.
“The band last visited South Florida in 2006, but I have never been there,” Pemberton reveals. “Those are my vocals on the latest album, ‘Hook, Line and Sinker.’ We wanted to get something out quickly, so we mostly did classic covers.”
Room Full of Blues are the very definition of road warriors. They are riding all the way from New England to Boca Raton on their tour bus.
“Our bus is not the newest or the nicest, but I can say I sleep in the same bunk Sugar Blue used to sleep,” jokes Pemberton. “Last year we played the King Biscuit blues festival. Now we are looking forward to the Funky Biscuit.”
The Lee Boys and Jimmy Thackery are personal favorites of Al Poliak.
“The Lee Boys are out of Florida- a really powerful gospel-funk group,” Poliak explains. “Jimmy Thackery is a good friend of mine. We come from the same Maryland-D.C. area. As a guitarist, he rules.”
Tickets are $35 for all three days or $15 advance, $18 at the door for Room Full of Blues and Jimmy Thackery or $12 advance, $15 at the door for the Lee Boys. Call 561-395-2929 or go to

A “Younger Than Springtime” South Pacific

“South Pacific” is one of those evergreen Rodgers and Hammerstein classics that will never go out of style.
The roadshow production at Broward Center through April 22 hits all the right notes, with a perfect balance of comedy, drama and social commentary, but there are a couple of casting quirks.
Uruguayan Marcelo Guzzo has the requisite operatic baritone and regal presence as French expatriate Emile de Becque, but he is considerably younger than some of his illustrious predecessors in the role. The actors I have seen playing the role have all appeared to be in their late 50s to early 60s. Guzzo’s de Becque states at one point he is an “old man” of 44.
That makes him much closer in age to Jennie Sophia’s Ensign Nellie Forbush, who is supposed to be younger by at least 20 years than the haunted French widower.
Sophia was having a little trouble with the consistency of her “hick from the sticks” Arkansas accent but her singing is wonderful.
The two children who play de Becque’s Polynesian children look more African than South Pacific native, which adds a sharper edge to Nellie’s inherent racism, prompting the sarcastic “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”
These are minor quibbles actually. Christopher Marriner leads a fine cast of comically lovesick Sea Bees. Shane Donovan has a lovely tenor that accents the yearning of his Lt. Cable for the exquisite Tonkanese girl Liat (Hsin-Yu Liao). Hannah Isabel Bautista really runs away with the comic role of Liat’s crazy mom, Bloody Mary. We really do believe this woman is chewing betel nuts and getting high all the time.
So laugh with “101 Pounds of Fun” and swoon with “Some Enchanted Evening’ and “This Nearly Was Mine.” It is perfectly all right.
Tickets start at $25.25. Call 954-462-0222 or go to

Parents Take Note of "Bully"

“Bully” a Stern, Emotional Warning About the Dark Side of Childhood

By Skip Sheffield

If you are a parent, “Bully” could be the most important film you see all year.
“Bully” is a documentary film made by award-winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch over the course of a school year in five different locations, focusing on five victims of bullying.
Bullies are nothing new. Facing a bully is considered a rite of passage by many. The biggest problem is that when you are born different or you develop in a less than conventional way you can become a target.
All five of the five subjects are different in different ways. The most obvious example is a kid named Alex, 14, from Iowa. He wears thick glasses and has a flattened nose, receding chin and protruding buck teeth. Alex freely admits the kids call him “Fish Face.” He seems resigned to a life of ridicule and harassment. We learn in the course of the film that Alex was born prematurely after just 26 weeks of gestation. He wasn’t expected to live more than a day.
In a fair and just world people would be understanding and sympathetic to such a challenged, strange-looking boy.
The world is not just or fair, and children can be the cruelest of all.
Alex is one of the stronger ones. Seventeen-year-old Tyler Long of Georgia and 11-year old Ty Field-Smalley of Oklahoma committed suicide out of despair. We see them only in home videos.
Ja’Meya, a 14-year-old Mississippi girl, became so enraged by the constant bullying on her school bus that one day she stole her mother’s pistol and threatened to shoot her tormenters. She was charged with 26 felony accounts.
Kelby is an openly gay 16-year-old girl from gay-unfriendly Oklahoma. Her way of coping is to hang out with outsiders like her.
Director Hirsch was granted amazing access to school rooms, halls and most notoriously, school buses. No one looks forward to a long bus ride. That’s when tempers flare and bullies go about their dirty work. We see kids harassing, hitting and insulting other kids in full view of the bus driver’s rear-view mirror.
Perhaps something has broken down since I had to ride a bus every day from Boca Raton almost to Boynton Beach. If any rough-housing went on, the driver would pull over immediately and threaten the perpetrators with reprisal. In case after case in “Bully” we see teachers, principals and bus drivers turning a blind eye, or minimizing aggressive behavior.
There will always be bullies. This is a sad fact of life. What “Bully’ does is show it has reached a new level of epidemic. My favorite kid in the film was a little guy who said you just have to face a bully, even if you get beat up.
It was a lesson I learned as a wee lad. Bullies are by nature cowards, and they act out of feelings of inferiority. If a child, regardless of age or size can muster the courage to call their bluff, it can work wonders. Meanwhile, this film serves as a warning something is wrong, and we can’t just ignore it.