Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Grab Bag of Films


A Full Christmas Movie Bag

By Skip Sheffield

We have quite a mixed movie gift bag this Christmas Day. We previously reviewed “American Hustle” (good dirty fun) and we have another financial skullduggery black comedy, “The Wolf of Wall Street” opening Dec. 25, as well as the high-minded “Mandela;" the light and funny “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and continuing in theaters, the lovely, moving “Philomena.”
First, “Philomena,” starring the impeccable Dame Judi Dench as the real-life Irish woman, Philomena Lee.
As a virgin teenaged girl, Philomena had a one-night fling with a handsome young man. In due time she discovered she was pregnant. As a good Catholic girl she went to confession. She found no compassion.
“You are the cause of this!,” the priest yells. “Your indecency!”
As was standard operating procedure in early 1950s Ireland, unwed Catholic girls were sent to a convent to bear their children. Philomena had a difficult breech birth. Her problems were blamed on her sin. Nevertheless Philomena gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but she was forced to sign away her parental rights at his birth. She was allowed to see Anthony, as she named him, only one hour a day. The rest of the time she had to work in the convent’s commercial laundry.
Nevertheless Philomena bonded with little Anthony until one day when he was around 3 the boy was taken away screaming to live with adoptive parents.
Fifty years later a journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was fired from his post as a Labour Government advisor, and he was casting about as to what to do next. At a party Martin met a woman named Mary (Mare Winningham) who him told the story of Philomena and how she had been searching for her lost son for 50 years. She implored Martin to write about it.
Sixsmith was no fan of human interest stories, but he began to research, and the more he learned the more incensed he became. Sixsmith met Philomena and the end result was the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”
Star Steve Coogan helped translate a much longer story to the screen and noted British director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) was hired to direct.
Some painful truths and outrageous injustices are revealed and conveyed with compelling sincerity by Judi Dench, who is truly one of the best actresses in the world, and Coogan, who embodies righteous indignation. Regardless of your religious or political beliefs, “Philomena” will likely move you.

An Off-Color “Wolf”

On the other side of the coin is “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which marks the return of Martin Scorsese to the mean streets of Manhattan.
“Wolf” is inspired by a memoir by New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort, played by one of Scorsese’s favorite actors, Leonardo DiCaprio. The screenplay is by Terence Winter, who knows his way around gangsters with “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos.”
Jordan Belfort might have been a registered stockbroker, but at heart he was a gangster who ruthlessly swindled gullible investors with his high-flying Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm, lived like a king in the early 1990s on his ill-gotten gains, and gloating about all the suckers he fleeced. DiCaprio’s good looks and natural charm help make the character palatable and sometimes funny, but never admirable.
The real Jordan Belfort has admitted he had as his model the fictional Gordon Gekko, who declared “Greed is good!” in 1987’s “Wall Street.” Belfort wasn’t content just with greed and wealth, he wanted to numb his senses with drugs and alcohol and satiate his body with promiscuous sex.
Scorsese insisted he wanted a hard R rating, and he got it. There is a certain shock value to seeing Jonah Hill playing Belfort’s schlumpy partner-in-crime, Donnie Azoff. It comes as no surprise the reckless Belfort was eventually busted and quickly ratted his friends to reduce his sentence. Why it takes three hours to arrive at this forgone conclusion makes no sense. This is a misfire, suitable only for those looking for cheap thrills.

The Compleat “Mandela”

Turning the coin once again we find “Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom,” starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, the controversial, courageous, and upon his Dec. 5, 2013 death, much-celebrated father of racially-unified South Africa.
The timing couldn’t have been better for “Mandela," which was released less than a week before Mandela died at age 95.
"Mandela" is based on his own 1994 autobiography. The project began when producer Anant Singh began interviewing Mandela while he was still in prison. The screenplay was completed 16 years later by William Nicholson and the two-and-a-quarter hour movie is directed by Justin Chadwick.
Mandela is without a doubt a heroic character, but he was no angel. The movie chronicles his tribal beginnings, his law school education, his failed first marriage, his clashes with the law as he deliberately provoked the apartheid white supremist government; his courtship with his second, activist wife Winnie (Naomie Harris); his painful 27-year prison sentence and his ultimate freedom and vindication as the first freely-elected President of South Africa.
“Love comes more naturally to the human heart,’ Mandela declares at film's end. I am inclined to believe that is how he endured and prevailed. This film is a respectful yet entertaining tribute to a larger-than-life hero.

“Walter Mitty” as Action Hero

On the distinctly light side we have “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
This is the second feature film adaptation of James Thurber’s (very) short story, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1939. The 1947 film starred Danny Kaye as meek, henpecked dreamer Walter Mitty.
This version is directed by and stars Ben Stiller, whose Walter has morphed into an action hero in the guise of a daydreaming Manhattan staff writer in the final days of Life magazine.
The swashbuckling photojournalist Sean O’Connell has sent Walter a 35 mm negative that globe-trotting Sean feels captures the “quintessence” of Life magazine, and is perfect for the final cover. The problem is the final edition is looming, and Walter can’t find the negative.
Walter has fallen hard for fellow employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristin Wiig) with whom he confides and who looms large in his imaginary (or are they real?) adventures as Walter races around the globe in search of elusive Sean.
Walter’s nasty boss is played by Adam Scott, who plays snotty jerk so well. His mom is played in a warmly welcome cameo by Shirley MacLaine.
Patton Oswalt is amusing as the recurring character of Todd, a solicitous eHarmony customer service representative. We won’t tell you who plays Sean, but he is well-cast in his tiny role as a fearless perfectionist visionary.
“Walter Mitty’ is slight but visually entertaining and fun.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Zany, Madcap "American Hustle"


A Funny, Dirty “American Hustle”

By Skip Sheffield

Americans love to hate high-finance hustlers.
This holiday season we have not one but too comic crime caper films about financial flim-flammery.
The first is aptly titled “American Hustle.” The original title was even blunter.
The slick hustler of the title is the self-styled con man Irving Rosenfeld, played by a scarcely recognizable Christian Bale. Bale put on 50 pounds of bloat and had his head shaved for a hilariously elaborate balding comb-over and wig combo, which we see Irv meticulously create at the film’s beginning. This sets the tone for more silly and outrageous scenes to follow.
Created by writer-director David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, Irving Rosenfeld was based on a real-life character, who with his faux British, posh partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), merrily swindled investors in what led to the government Abscam operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Unluckily for Irving, a dogged, ambitious FBI agent named Richie DiMaso got on the scent of their loan company schemes and concocted a sting that caught Irving and Sydney red-handed. Even more unluckily for Irving is his marriage to the volatile, jealous Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Adams and Lawrence are costumed in revealing, flashy 1970s outfits that make them look like hookers. Perhaps that is the point.
DiMaso is played by Bradley Cooper in a ridiculous tightly-curled perm evocative of 1970s excess. Richie is the kind of unorthodox law enforcement man (he is fond of cocaine) who is almost as shady as the crooks he chases.
Under Richie’s thumb, Irving and Sydney are forced to con Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a sleazy but not really evil Mayor of rampantly corrupt Camden, New Jersey. To ensnare Polito, Richie coerces his Mexican FBI colleague (Michael Pena) to pose as a wealthy Arab Sheik who has enough money to stake a casino all by himself. From there it gets even more complicated and far-fetched as greedy politicians implicate themselves in the Arab scam. The ultimate prize is elusive Miami mob boss Victor Tellegio, played in one short scene by a man who does menace so well, Robert De Niro.
In short everyone is dirty in “American Hustle.” Some are just dirtier than others. If you consider this film a camp left-handed salute to Martin Scorsese, you may enjoy it as good dirty fun. Up next is Scorsese himself directing “The Wolf of Wall Street.”


A Bittersweet Look at the Folkie Era


A Folkie Era Remembered “Inside Llewyn Davis”

By Skip Sheffield

As a musician I appreciated the darkly comic plausibility of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Llewwyn was a Greenwich folk singer who never was but could have been.
As a film fan I dug the bizarre black humor of Joel and Ethan Coen, who had the good sense to hire noted songwriter and record producer T Bone Burnett, who produced the Coen brothers best-selling soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” to produce an eclectic sound track that could have been made by any number of early 1960s folk singers. The character of Llewyn Davis most resembles an under-appreciated Greenwich Village fixture, Dave Van Ronk.
Van Ronk had a loyal following, but it was never enough to make him a star. The fictitious character of Llewyn Davis, played in a breakout performance by Oscar Isaac, has the additional handicap of a stubborn, elitist, perfectionist attitude. Think of Bob Dylan in a really bad mood.
We meet Llewyn Davis in 1961 at the Village’s famed Gaslight Café, which was the launching pad of such folk artists as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and yes, Bob Dylan. Davis had played the Gaslight so many times he was taken for granted by the audience and the club owner. Davis barely scrapes by, sleeping on couches of tolerant friends.
The most tolerant of these friends is Prof. Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and his wife Lillian (Robin Bartlett), who is also a sometimes folk singer.
The Gorfeins have a curious orange cat that will figure in comically in Llewyn’s misadventures and also serves to underscore Llewyn’s selfishness and irresponsibility.
The action of the story takes place in a single week in which Llewyn gets a recording session for a goofy novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” The sheer ludicrousness of the song and its lame refrain are a comic highlight as performed by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and a deep-voiced guy named Al Cody (Adam Driver).
The bulk of the action takes place on a road trip to Chicago with a vain jazz player named Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet, Johnny 5 (Garrett Hedlund). Llewyn hopes to get a contract from big deal producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).
In a nod to the dark side of the jazz scene, Turner is a junkie and he nearly overdoses in a rest room. Johnny 5 takes it all in stride. It has happened many times before.
There is other darkness. Llewyn’s former girlfriend Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), also a folk singer, is pregnant and seeks an expensive and risky alternative to giving birth.
Oscar Isaac seems to have come out of nowhere to do his star turn, singing, playing and acting with great conviction as the conflicted, frustrated artist. Isaac was born in Guatemala of a Cuban father and raised in Miami. He is a product of the Juilliard School in New York and at age 33 he faces a bright future- unlike the character he plays.
I am old enough to remember the tail end of the folk era, which had its venues here in South Florida. It was an idealistic, earnest, passionate time just before the Vietnam War really began heating up to screw up everything. The Coen Brothers have beautifully captured this more naïve time. It comes as no surprise “Inside Llewyn Davis” won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.


The Dark Side of "Mary Poppins"


Walt Disney and the Real Mary Poppins

By Skip Sheffield

Who ever knew the sunny, upbeat musical “Mary Poppins” had such dark, painful origins?
Walt Disney knew, and so do his successors. “Saving Mr. Banks” is the entertaining, educational and yes, uplifting tale of Disney’s struggles to convince author P.L. Travers to allow a screen adaptation of her precious work, “Mary Poppins.”
A lesser man than Walt Disney would have said “forget it” after 20 years of fruitless negotiations. But Disney was a determined man who harbored buried troubles of his own, and he was just as stubborn as the reclusive author.
It’s been a banner year for Tom Hanks, who shone as the valiant “Captain Phillips” and now convincingly fills the shoes of the legendary animator and entrepreneur Walt Disney.
Tom Hanks looks nothing like the seemingly genial founder of Disneyland. Hanks did grow a mustache and cut and slicked his hair in 1950s fashion, but his focus is more on the indomitable inner spirit of Disney, who promised his daughters he would develop a movie version of their favorite book, “Mary Poppins,” by P.L. Travers if it was the last thing he ever did.
Prickly P.L. Travers, who was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland, Australia, is played by brilliant British actress Emma Thompson.
The film, directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), is set in 1961 with regular flashbacks to Travers’ Australian Outback childhood. It was not an easy childhood. Her father, Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), was an alcoholic dreamer and failed banker. Nevertheless little Helen loved her father unconditionally. She honored him with her pen name, and he would turn up in unexpected ways in “Mary Poppins,” which was her only commercial success.
“Mary Poppins” is in essence a tribute to P.L. Travers’ luckless, ill-fated father. This film, adapted for the screen by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, explains why Travers was so protective of her fictitious governess. Emma Thompson, who will likely be nominated for an Oscar, brings out the character’s stubborn pride and contrary nature without making us hate her.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is leavened with much humor by an ace supporting cast that includes Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Travers’ Los Angeles chauffeur; Bradley Whitford as Don Da Gradi, co-writer of the 1964 film; B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as composers and lyricists of the score; Kathy Baker as a trusted Disney studio executive and Melanie Paxon as Disney’s loyal secretary, Dolly.
This film may sanitize and whitewash grittier parts of the real story but in the tradition of Disney family entertainment it is a light, loving tribute to Uncle Walt and his most challenging film project.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

You Bet "We Will Rock You"


Yes, “We Will Rock You”

By Skip Sheffield

Does “We Will Rock You” fulfill its boast?
Yes indeed, absolutely! This high-energy tribute to British rock group Queen is rocking the Ziff Ballet Opera House of Miami’s Arsht Center through Dec. 15 in a way it has never quite been rocked before.
“We Will Rock You’ is a joyous tribute to the power of live rock ‘n’ roll music, using the extensive catalogue of Queen as framework.
Originally conceived as a jukebox musical by founding Queen members Brian May (guitar) and Roger Taylor (drums), WWRY as we will shorten it was given a book by British novelist, comedian and director Ben Elton.
The futuristic, fascistic story is set in 2302 in a world where live music and musical instruments have been banned. The masses are entertained by programmed, computer-generated musical sounds broadcast by the all-powerful Global/Soft Corporation. A group of rebellious young, known as Bohemians, sense there is something more than the unimaginative “Radio Ga Ga” that fills the airwaves and Internet.
A guy who calls himself Buddy Holly (the amazingly deep-voiced Ryan Knowles) is convinced there is a seeker who will come along and wake everyone up to “The power of rock!”
That would be a young man who calls himself Galileo Figaro (Brian Justin Crum), who bumps into a kindred soul he calls Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis) in a song called “I want to Break Free.”
Those who know and love Queen know the names Galileo Figaro and Scaramouche are in the lyrics of Queen’s mock-operatic mini-masterpiece, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The characters are cast for stage charisma and vocal power. Brian Justin Crum has and impressive vocal range and rock-star good lucks. Ruby Lewis is a tiny, pretty woman with a voice all out of proportion to her diminutive size. If there is a star in this show, she is it. Hearing her duet on “Somebody to Love” is simply thrilling.
In a melodrama you must have villains. WWRY has Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith), with spiffy gray Global/Soft uniform, platinum helmet-hair and face that looks like it was sculpted from plastic.
Khasoggi’s female counterpart is the Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold), who is an amalgam of all the Disney evil female monarchs.
There is a chorus of imaginatively rag-tag killer chorus of singing and dancing Bohemians, backed by a massively powerful onstage nine-piece electric band perched on a scaffold high above the stage. The band has two drummers; one on either side; two keyboards, and two guitarists (Tristan Avakian and Bob Wegner) playing Brian May’s signature harmonic leads to perfection. The principal shredder comes down onstage on two dramatic occasions, and the entire band joins the cast at curtain call, which as a musician I appreciate.
It is no joke that ushers offer free earplugs who any who want them. This show is loud, but more important it is joyous and a fitting tribute to the genius of Queen singer-songwriter Freddie Mercury and his enormously gifted band mates.
Tickets start at $26. Call 800-745-3000 or 305-949-6722 or go to

Monday, December 9, 2013

We Wish You a Crummy Christmas


“The Lyons” a Dysfunctional Family for the Ages

By Skip Sheffield

So you think you are from a dysfunctional family? Go see “The Lyons” presented by the Women’s Theatre Project through Dec. 22 at the Willow Theatre of Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton, and you may feel better about your own situation.
“The Lyons,” written by Nicky Silver, puts the “diss” in dysfunctional.
Father Ben Lyons (Kevin Reilly) is on his deathbed, dying from cancer. Ben is not filled with gratitude for a long, fulfilling life. His attitude is summed up by the “F word” he uses constantly.
Mom Rita Lyons (Jessica K. Peterson) is not much better. In fact she is worse: the archetypical overbearing, suffocating, selfish and unfeeling Jewish mother. Jessica K. Peterson’s bleakly hilarious rendition of the ultimate bad mom is the best thing about this show. We won’t spoil any surprises, because Rita regularly surprises us. Just when you think she couldn’t possibly be more callous and cruel, she tops herself.
Then there are the “kids.” Son Curtis (Matthew Korinko) is a writer of short stories that no one wants to read. He is an insecure gay guy with a boyfriend named Peter, but Peter is far from ideal. We find out how far in Act Two, which is almost like a different mini-play.
Daughter Lisa (Jacqueline Lagy) has more common problems. Her former husband was physically abusive, yet she continues to return for more. Lisa is a recovering alcoholic, but soon to backslide. Dad blames Lisa’s alcoholism on her lousy choice of a partner. Lisa points out they met at an A.A. meeting. It’s a funny line. Ha-ha.
The laughs are bitter and far between.
A tart-tongued nurse (Carolyn Johnson) gets in some good zingers in Act Two. For all his foul-mouthed negativity, dad is a crusty cuss who speaks his mind regardless of consequences, prompting shock-value kind of gasps and chuckles. Clay Cartland brings some melodramatic kick to Act Two as an actor trying to be a real estate agent.
“The Lyons” was a 2012 Broadway debut for playwright Nicky Silver, who specializes in caustic wit. It’s the kind of play some New Yorkers love, and since we have our share of transplanted New Yorkers, it may well find an audience at Willow Theatre. Just be forewarned this is not “I Remember Mama” or “Father Knows Best.” This is family functioning as warfare.
Tickets are $25. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Call 561-347-3948 or go to