Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sex and Laughter in "Inherent Vice"

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Joaquin Phoenix Gets Groovy in "Inherent Vice"

By Skip Sheffield

Far out man!
Stumble back into the early 1970s with Joaquin Phoenix and “Inherent Vice.”
Thomas Pynchon is noted for his dense, baffling novels such as “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “Crying of Lot 49” and “V.” I stumbled upon Pynchon as a college student and became entranced with his obvious intelligence, humor and total weirdness.
I never read “Inherent Vice,” which was published in 2009, but I recognize Pynchon’s weirdness and extreme intelligence in the character of Larry “Doc” Sportello, played by another celebrated weird guy, Joaquin Phoenix. Sportello is a private eye in Los Angeles in 1970, living in a seaside community very much like Manhattan Beach. Why he is called Doc is never explained, but that’s Pynchon for you.
Phoenix grew huge muttonchop sideburns for his character and his attitude is that of a typical Southern California stoner, always in a marijuana haze.
The setup for the story is a visit by an ex-girlfriend Shasta, played by Katherine Waterston. I was nor familiar with British-born Katherine Waterston, but let me put it bluntly: she is one beautious babe.
The fictional Shasta is involved with a slimy developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, who does slime very well).
Mickey will disappear, but we will see him again, as we will Shasta. Meanwhile Doc gets a legitimate job from Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former junkie who wants Doc to find her AWOL musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson, who always seems stoned even if he is completely sober).

This is a seventh feature for director Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote the screenplay. It is the funniest, sexiest movie he has done since "Boogie Nights" back in 1997. The film abounds in celebrity cameos and bizaare names, such as Martin Short as Japonica Fenway and Maya Rudolph as Petunia Leeway. Reece Witherspoon is at her deadpan best as Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball and Josh Brolin is a hoot as a literally square-headed Lt. Det. Christian F. Bjornsen, known as "Bigfoot." What a long, strange trip it is.

A Very Musical "Stars of David"

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All Hail “The Stars of David”

By Skip Sheffield

It is no secret that Jewish people are disproportionately represented in movies and entertainment. That fact is celebrated in the musical revue “Stars of David,” running through Jan. 4 in the Amaturo Theatre of Broward Center for the Arts. The show will play Kravis Center in West Palm Beach Feb. 17-March 15.
The show is based on a book by Abigail Pogrebin and conceived by Aaron Harnick. It stars two of South Florida’s most popular Jewish entertainers: Avi Hoffman and Patti Gardner, and two relative newcomers, Cassie Levine and Mike Westrich.
It is not just entertainers who are the “Stars of David,” it is political figures, lawyers, scientists and financiers. It is no secret that Jewish people tend to be over-achievers. It is a kind of survival mechanism.
The songs of “David” are by a variety of composers; some little-known (Gaby Alter, Abigail Pogrebin and Gordon Greenberg) and others famous (David Shire, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Michael Feinstein). The songs are clever and witty, and except for the theme song “Stars of David,” they are aimed at specific Jewish personalities such as Leonard Nimoy, Aaron Sorkin, Joan Rivers, Norman Lear, Fran Drescher and Gloria Steinem. One of the funniest songs, “Who Knew Jew,” is dedicated to Gwyneth Paltrow. No, I didn’t know. Gwyneth looks as goy as me. Then again one of the most famous and beloved Jews who is not included in this show is Paul Newman, who certainly is one of the most handsome Jewish actors in history. Woody Allen isn’t included either. He may not be as handsome as Newman, but he has made millions of people laugh.
The more I have learned about Jewish people and the older I get, the more my admiration for “the chosen people” has grown. The deal was sealed when I was invited by Ben-Gurion University back in 2008 to visit the State of Israel. The miracles that have been accomplished in that desert country are astounding. I saw first-hand how Israelites live in a constant state of preparedness for surprise attacks, yet go on about their everyday life as if everything was perfectly normal. The scientists and educators of Israel who make medical and technological breakthroughs on a regular basis are to me the true “Stars of David.”
Tickets are $45. Call 800-745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com or wwwbrowardcenter.org.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Once Again "Into the Woods"

“Into the Woods” for the Umpteenth Time

By Skip Sheffield

“Into the Woods” is not my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical. After about the tenth time of hearing the refrain “Into the Woods” repeated I get tired of it. I get it. All kinds of stuff happens in Grimm Fairy Tales’ weird woods.
On the other hand the movie version of “Into the Woods” has a killer cast; not the least of which is Meryl Streep at her witchiest. I could watch the many moods of Meryl all day long. She is clearly relishing playing the bad girl; the wicked witch.
On the other hand we have Johnny Depp, camping it up as the big, bad wolf. For one thing Depp is not big. And in his silly makeup he is about as threatening as a housecat.
The rest of the “Woods” is a mixed bag. I liked little Red Riding Hood, played by newcomer Lilla Crawford. I loved Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella, who figures in all the tales.
In the stage musical the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are central to both the comedy and the pathos of James Lapine’s script. To my mind Emily Blunt can do no wrong, and as the childless wife cursed by the Witch, she tugs at the heart strings.
Also recurring in the story is Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk and giant fame, and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who lets down her hair to let up her lover.
“Into the Woods” is directed by Rob Marshall, who fared much better with the screen version of “Chicago.” In his defense “Woods” is a much more dense, complicated show. It looks amazing for the most part, but for me the definitive version stars one Bernadette Peters as the Witch and Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife.

"Unbroken" an Earnest, Noble Tribute

By Skip Sheffield

You can’t fault Angelina Jolie for bad intentions. “Unbroken” is as noble a film as we have seen in years, and it’s all true.
“Unbroken” is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic track star whose B-24 bomber was shot down over the Pacific in World War II. After surviving 47 days at sea in a rubber raft, Zamperini was captured by Japanese and sent to an internment camp, where he spent two and a half tortuous years.
Angelina Jolie directs and championed this film, for which Ethan and Joel Coen wrote the screenplay. The Coen brothers are best known for dark, funny, offbeat films such as "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski."
"Unbroken" is as earnest and serious as you can get. Thereby lies the problem. It's not very exciting. Sure, it starts off with a bang with the desperate last moments before Zamperini's plane plunged into the sea. But then we flash back to Zamperini's high school years and the ethnic slurs he suffered for being Italian. It seems almost quaint now, but the discrimination against Zamperini just made him stronger.
Jack O'Connell, who neither looks nor sounds Italian, plays Louis Zamperini. He is a very good-looking guy, which might be one of the reasons Jolie cast him.
The other major player in a war of wills is Takamasa Ishihara as Zamperelli's Japanese tormento
r, Mutsushiro Watanbe. One of the most satisfying things about "Unbroken" is the depiction of the grudging admiration that grows between the two enemies.
Louis Zamperelli wasn't the only American hero of World War II. There were thousands of them. It is good to honor them while they remain alive. One by one "The Greatest Generation" is dying off. I salute Angelina Jolie for saluting them.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Boca Symphonia Rocks!

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Classical Music Alive and Well in Boca Raton

By Skip Sheffield

Boca Symphonia rocks!
No, really. The Symphonia Boca Raton plays classical music, but they are not your grandmother’s orchestra.
Violinist David Kim was on the podium for the first concert of the Symphonia’s tenth season, Dec. 21 at Roberts Theatre, St. Andrew’s School. Kim is concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra; a post he has held since 1999. Kim conducts with his violin, not a baton. I couldn’t help but notice he did not have sheet music but an Ipad. Later he told the audience that he has gotten with the program and moved from printed paper to electronic device. This does not mean Kim rejects the past. He plays a 1757 Guarneri violin owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. He cheerfully admits it is worth more than $1 million.  I love it when musicians talk about their instruments. Guarneri is second only to Stradivarius in value and mystique. In Kim’s hands it doesn’t really matter. He is a master player, as he so readily demonstrated in the first selection of a Baroque program: Corelli’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 8. Big it was, indeed.
Even more of a treat was J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, featuring Mei Mei Luo toe-to-toe with David Kim.
The music of J.S. Bach is devilishly complex, but to Kim and Luo it was child’s play. In addition to being a fine player, Luo throws her whole body into expressing the music, which reminds us there is so substitute for hearing music live.
Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” is what music snobs like to call a “warhorse.” I’ll get up on that horse and ride it any time, as the Boca Symphonia made as fresh as it was when composed in 1717.
People worry about the decline of classical music. The good news is it is alive and well and living in Boca Raton. The next concert is Jan. 11, with Gerard Schwarz on the podium and a program of Strauss, Saint-Saens, Mahler/Britten and the mighty Beethoven. Call 866-687-1201 or go to www.thesympnonia.org.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Rough, Tough Reese Rules "Wild"

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Rough, Tough Reese Rules

By Skip Sheffield

Reese Witherspoon rules!
Who knew this tiny, pretty, girly-girl was such a warrior woman? I sure didn’t until I saw “Wild,” which Witherspoon produced and stars in as Cheryl Strayed.
Strayed was a troubled woman who dropped out of everyday life and embarked on a 1,100-mile hike, which she chronicled in her memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail.” British novelist Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”) adapted the book for a screenplay directed by French-Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”).
Cheryl Strayed’s dropout was triggered by two events: the breakup of her marriage and the death of her beloved mother Bobbi, played by Laura Dern. Oh, there were a couple of other things too. Cheryl got into alcohol and drugs and “graduated” to shooting heroin. She became sexually promiscuous as well. In short Cheryl was a mess at the outset of her ill-prepared journey.
“Wild” is a visually gorgeous film, and Reese Witherspoon is not bad to look at either. Reese is only 61 inches tall, and she probably doesn’t weight more than a large sack of flour. It is pretty funny watching her struggling with a ridiculously huge backpack (she calls it “Monster”) that is just about as big as she is. Reese cheerfully swears like a sailor, bares her body and reveals a bit of her soul in her scenes with Laura Dern, whom I have always loved. It’s nice to see Dern get a decent role, and it does not get much more tragic when a battered, ever-sunny woman suffers and dies of lung cancer at the young age of 45. Dern is only nine years older than 38-year-old Witherspoon, but she has the sacrificing mom thing down beautifully.
Cheryl Strayed is an avowed feminist, which does not necessarily mean she hates men. However, all but a handful of the male characters in “Wild” come off as rotters. The worst of the lot is Cheryl’s alcoholic, abusive stepfather. On the other hand is her endlessly patient, tolerant ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski).
In the end “Wild” is a joyful journey from the depths of depression and self-destruction to the highs of amazing physical endurance, strength and triumph.

Steve Carell Goes Postal for "Foxcatcher"

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Steve Carell Channels His Bad Self for "Foxcatcher"

by Skip Sheffield

Ah Steve Carell, we hardly knew ye.
Typically Carell plays light-hearted comedy roles, and he is very good at it. “Foxcatcher” is more than just a departure. It is a revelation.
Carell plays John E. du Pont of the famous, fabulously wealthy du Pont family. “Foxcatcher” was the name of the Pennsylvania country estate where John E. lived with his elderly mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) and a full service staff.
 Jean du Pont loved horses and everything equestrian, including fox-hunting.
John E. du Pont hated horses but had a thing for wrestling, and he fancied himself an expert. That is the impetus for this bizarre story, based on actual events and adapted for the screen by E. Max Frye (“Where the Money Is”) and Dan Futterman (“A Mighty Heart”).
Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and his younger brother Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) were 1984 World and Olympic Gold Metal Champion wrestlers for Team USA. The story begins in March, 1987. The brothers teach and coach at a small college. One day Mark gets a message summoning him to the du Pont estate to meet John E. du Pont in person. Mark did not realize the full impact of the du Pont name, but when he was transported by helicopter to the vast estate, he learns soon enough.
Du Pont wanted both Schultz brothers to come and live at the estate and coach a hand-picked team to compete in the 1988 Seoul Olympics under the Foxcatcher banner. Dave was happily married to Nancy (Sienna Miller) with two children, and he had no desire to be uprooted to suit a rich man’s fancy.
“The rich are different for you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said to his friend Ernest Hemingway.
“Yes,” Hemingway wisecracked, “They have more money.”
Being fabulously wealthy is not just about money. It is about power. John E. du Pont is portrayed as a petulant spoiled brat by Carell, who wears a large fake nose and other prosthetics to make him less handsome. As we watch du Pont browbeat first Mark and then Dave, whom he coerces to work for him despite his better instincts, he becomes uglier and uglier.
Channing Tatum bulked up amazingly for his role, and his wrestling moves are quite convincing. So is the physical beating he takes, in what he says is his most difficult role to date. I believe him.
The outcome of this story is a matter of public record, so I won’t go into it. The take-away for me is that yes, the rich are different, but no, I would not want to trade places.

A Standing O for "Book of Mormon" in WPB

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Crude, Rude Lewd but Funny & Tuneful

By Skip Sheffield

“The Book of Mormon” is crude, rude and lewd. It is also very funny and surprisingly tuneful.
The debut run of “The Book of Mormon” through Sunday, Dec. 21 at Kravis Center is pretty much sold-out, so we will keep this short. Evidently the West Palm Beach audience is more in tune with this Trey Parker-Robert Lopez-Matt Stone musical comedy than Broward County was when it opened there last year. We saw no walk-outs in WPB and the audience was the most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen at Kravis. They actually stayed all the way through a long standing ovation.
This cast features several veterans of the Broadway cast. Principal among these is Cody Jamison Strand, the shorter, chubbier partner of a mismatched duo with tall, lithe David Larsen. Strand and Larsen are Elders Cunningham and Price. After completing their missionary training, the “Elders,” who are in their late teens and early 20s, are given assignments to all parts of the world. Elder Price had dreamed of Orlando (a recurring joke), but instead he and Elder Cunningham are sent to Uganda; one of the most unstable, diseased countries in Africa.
This is the setup for all kinds of cultural, spiritual and sexual shocks. Parker and Stone are the guys behind the foul-mouthed cartoon series, “South Park.” Lopez is the composer-lyricist of the equally outrageous puppet show “Avenue Q.” If you don’t know these facts, you might be quite offended.
I found “Book of Mormon” even more enjoyable the second time around because I was able to concentrate more on the music. The ensemble vocal work is fabulous and so is the live musical accompaniment. Cody Jamison Strand is the standout male vocalist and darling Deenee Benton is irresistible as the Chief’s daughter, Nabulungi. Evidently the Church of the Latter-Day Saints is OK with the show because they took out three full-page ads for the actual Book of Mormon.
Though the show is sold-out, turn-backs or no-shows are possible. Tickets start at $45. Call 800-572-8471 or go to www.kravis.org.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ladies Rule in Amaluna

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Beauty Under the Big Top

By Skip Sheffield

Cirque du Soleil is back in town with a new show, “Amaluna,” and a new location under a big top set up in a parking lot across from Sunlife Stadium in Miami through Jan. 23.
In French big top is Grand Chapiteau, which sounds much more elegant, and indeed this is an elegant female-centric show that started on tour in 2012 and is finally reaching us here at the bottom of the USA.
Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) is an all-human circus extravaganza from the Montreal-based company that is the largest theatrical company in the world. Instead of animals, Cirque du Soleil features amazing human tricks performed by the best acrobatic, balance, gymnastic and dance performers in the world. Like all Cirque du Soleil shows, “Amaluna” has minimal dialogue and maximum draw-dropping performances, costumes and sets.
Plot is probably the least important element in any Cirque du Soleil show, but for the record “Amaluna” is set on an enchanted island governed by goddesses who are guided by cycle of the moon. The chief goddess is Prospera (Julie McInnes) who has a lovely, tiny daughter named Miranda (Julia Mykhailova). My guess is Guy Laliberte and his 15 collaborators were inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which has a male character named Prospero and a terrible storm.
There is a storm in “Amaluna” too, and it maroons a cast of young, virile and very agile men on the shores. One of them, Prince Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin, again with the Shakespeare) catches the eye of Miranda and proceeds to woo her.
This premise sets up the acrobatic, trapeze and juggling acts which include Storm, Peacock Dance, Cerceau (Andreanne Nadeau), Water Bowl (Julia Mykhailova) and Uneven Bars in Act One and Teeterboard, Balance Goddess (Lili Chao-Rigolo), Duo Trapeze (Anouk Blais, Guillaume Mesmin), Chinese Pole (Evgeny Kurkin), Juggling (Viktor Lee) and Aerial Straps (Virginia Kanovas, Sarah Hardy and Haley Viloria)
There is a lizard-like character named Cali (Viktor Kee) who has a crush on Miranda and a grudge against Prince Romeo, and of course there are clowns (Nathalie Claude is Jeeves and Shereen Hickman is Deeda) who are sent in to jolly up the story. Even the director (Diane Paulus) and the band is all-female, and they are excellent.
One thing I can guarantee: You will be dazzled by beauty and amazed by feats of agility, strength, balance, and gravity-defying acrobatics.
Tickets are $57, $76 and $102, with premium seats going all the way up to $360. Parking is $25, cash only. Call 866-624-7783 or go to www.cirquedusoleil.com.

A Sad, Brave Farewell to Glen Campbell

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"I'll Be There" a Most Excellent, Moving Documentary

By Skip Sheffield

The Sad, Brave Story of Glen Campbell
Need a good cry? It is hard to remain emotionless while watching the poignant documentary "Glen Campbell: I'll Be There."
I used to feel a little defensive admitting I liked Glen Campbell and his "Goodtime Hour" TV show. Turns out I was not alone. A whole bunch of celebs much more talented than I go on record paying tribute to Glen Campbell as singer, songwriter, actor and virtuoso musician.
Directed by fellow Southerner James Keach, "I'll Be There" chronicles a final international tour embarked upon by Campbell, his young wife Kim, their three musical children Cal, Shannon and Ashley, fellow band members and crew.
Campbell went public with the announcement of his Alzheimer's Disease diagnosis in June of 2011. It was decided he would make a five-week "farewell tour" while he was still mentally and physically able. It was an incredibly brave thing to do, from the heart and completely sincere. The tour was such a hit it was extended through a year.
"I'll Be There" does not detour into the darker side of Campbell's life, though it acknowledges his many marriages (Kim Woolen, a former Rockette, is his fourth wife) and battles with alcoholism and drugs.
Music is one of the toughest businesses there is. Few if any remain unscathed. Campbell endured for more than 50 years as a session musician, songwriter, singer, actor and television star. Campbell was the artist most responsible for promoting Country music to the mass market. Don't take it from me. Hear the testimony of Blake Shelton, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift, Steve Martin, Chad Smith of the Red-Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Springsteen, The Edge of U-2, Paul McCartney from a little group known as The Beatles and from former U.S. President and fellow Arkansas native, Bill Clinton.
Because I know first-hand what a harsh mistress music is, I give this my highest rating.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"My Old Lady" a Comic, Dramatic Gem

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"My Old Lady" a Comic and Dramatic Gem

By Skip Sheffield

“My Old Lady” runs like a precision hand-crafted gold pocket watch at Palm Beach Dramaworks. The Israel Horovitz comedy-drama runs through Jan. 5 at 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
A gold pocket watch has a significant role in this "love letter to France," which Israel Horovitz embraced when he was only 20-years-old.
That was more than 50 years ago. In the years since the Massachusetts writer-director has become a leading playwright in France, with more than 50 translated productions of his work.
Horovitz was inspired by the uniquely French concept of "viager," which enables an elderly owner of property to sell a building below market value in exchange for living privileges and an income for life for the seller.
Such is the case with Mathilde Girard (Estelle Parsons), the 92-year-old owner of an elegant French townhouse overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Mathilde is a refined and lovely woman in reasonably good health and sharp of intellect. Living with Mathilde is her 50-year-old never-married daughter Chloe (Angelica Page), an English teacher at the school her mother founded.
Into this cozy relationship blunders Mathias "Jim" Gold (Tim Altmeyer), a 53-year-old thrice-married, self-described loser from New York City. Penniless, relapsing alcoholic Mathias has only a fancy gold pocket watch and a claim to the townhouse occupied by the Girard women, left to him by his late, estranged father Max.
British-born Mathilde is not unaware of Mathias because she has been informed by her lawyer of his inheritance. Chloe has no such insight and she is instantly hostile and combative when she encounters the strange American wearing her father's bathrobe.
The reason Mathias' father's bathrobe is in the townhouse is because he and Mathilde were lifelong lovers, though locked into loveless marriages to others.
Among the several revelations in "My Old Lady" is the difference between Americans and French in attitudes regarding love, marriage and fidelity. The crude, self-centered and resentful Mathias becomes enlightened by the older and younger Girard ladies, who resolve some of their own conflicts too.
The esteemed Estelle Parsons, who is both an Academy Award-winner ("Bonnie & Clyde," 1967) and a 2004 inductee to the Theater Hall of Fame, is simply one of the finest actors working in America today. She plays five years older and more fragile than her robust, agile 87-year-old self. Parsons radiates a fierce intelligence and rapier wit essential to her character, working with two skilled actors with whom she has worked before. Both Tim Altmeyer's Mathias and Angelica Page's Chloe have unresolved parental issues and an unrealized yearning for a committed romantic relationship. It is the detente of adversaries and blossoming of Mathias and Chloe's relationship that provides the warmth and hope in this, the most sharply-realized version of a play that was first performed in 2002. Director William Hayes worked closely with the playwright in creating a new, definitive version of the stage play. Horovitz wrote and directed a 2014 film version of "My Old Lady" starring an A-list cast including Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristen Scott Thomas. Other than the fact the movie had gorgeous actual Paris locations, I can say I enjoyed this stage version even more. Kudos to everyone.
Tickets are $62 ($10 students) and may be reserved by calling 561-514-4042 or going to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Leslie Uggams is a Charming Mame

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Leslie Uggams Makes Us Feel Alive Again in “Mame”

By Skip Sheffield

Our family has admired Leslie Uggams since she was a child star on “Sing Along With Mitch.”
Leslie Uggams is fully grown and then some as the larger-than-life Manhattan socialite “Mame,” playing through Dec. 28 at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton.
The role of “Auntie” Mame Dennis is one of the best female characters in American musical history. Many illustrious actresses have played Mame, starting with Rosalind Russell in the original 1956 Broadway production.
Here in Boca Raton the most memorable Mame for me was our own Jan McArt, who embodies the outgoing, showy, joyful character both on and offstage.
I do not know Leslie Uggams personally, but she is an undeniably beautiful woman with a lovely voice. I think she handles the role of Mame Dennis well, but there are a few strange things about this production, directed by the ever-reliable Norb Joerder.
While she looks much younger than her real age of 71, Ms. Uggams is noticeably older than her stage love interest, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, an aristocratic, cornpone Southern plantation owner played by Jim Ballard.
However, Mame’s “bosom buddy” Vera Charles, is played by the age-appropriate and always delightful Lourelene Snedecker.
“Mame” has a live band listed in the program, but the musicians are not visible, and the sound they create is so heavily amplified it might as well have been pre-recorded.
On the plus side Ryan Sell is one really cute kid and self-assured as younger Patrick Dennis, who becomes Mame’s ward when his father dies. It was the real-life Patrick Dennis who wrote the memoire on which the book Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee based their script.
Also excellent in the comic role of Mame’s long-suffering personal secretary Agnes Gooch is Irene Adjan. Playing the insufferable killjoy Dwight Babcock is the always professional Jeffrey Bruce.
No, this is not the best “Mame” I have ever seen, but I can honestly say this is the best I’ve seen in years, and Leslie Uggams delivers where it counts in the score’s best ballad, “If He Walked Into My Life.” Lavishly costumed, “Mame” is all about Jerry Herman’s wonderful music, and with that Leslie Uggams can “coax the blues right out of the horn.”
Tickets are $72. Student tickets are $25 advance or $15 rush one hour before curtain. Call 561-995-2333.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Tommy Lee Jones Stars in a "Midwestern"

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Tommy Lee Jones Stands Tall in "The Homesman"

By Skip Sheffield

Can Tommy Lee Jones save the American Western?
“The Homesman” is not exactly a Western. You could call it a "Midwestern,” as it is set in Nebraska Territory and points east toward Iowa in the year 1854.
Jones, who co-wrote, directed and stars in “The Homesman” makes one of most comical entrances in movie history, staggering out of a sod hut in his long johns, his face covered in soot.
Jones' character, who he chooses to call George Briggs, has been charged with claim-jumping by a vigilante crowd of locals. The homestead's true owner had gone East in search of a bride, Briggs figured "finders keepers."
A tough, self-reliant woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has been humiliated and unsuccessful thus far in her hunt for a husband. Three young wives in the pioneer community had gone "plumb loco," as they used to say, and Mary Bee was the volunteer winner of a lottery to decide who would be responsible for transporting the three mentally-disturbed, possibly violent women back East to a church home in Iowa. A primitive paddy wagon was been constructed, complete with barred windows, a door that locks from the outside, and cuffs and chains to secure the human cargo.
Mary Bee just so happens to discover George Briggs on a horse beneath a tree, with hands tied and a noose around his neck. She decides to save the luckless stranger but it is not with a price. May Bee tells Briggs about her mission and says she will save him and pay him $300 at the end if he helps her drive the wagon and three crazy woman to Iowa.
So begins a pioneer-era road trip with the mismatched couple and their charges. Jones the director mixes equal parts comedy with the drama, and there will be some unexpected plot turns.
Hilary Swank has the admirable ability of appearing very strong, yet vulnerable. She is not a classic beauty, but she certainly is not the Plain Jane she plays in this movie.
Both Swank and Jones cheerfully make fun of themselves. Did Jones ever hear of sunscreen? His George Briggs is so wrinkled, baggy and bleary, Keith Richard is a smooth lad by comparison.
Jones is not doubt held in high regard by the Hollywood community, for a prestigious A-list of celebrities lined up for bit parts. While the crazy ladies (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) are lesser-known, Grace Gummer's mom, Meryl Streep, certainly is. Streep has a tiny role at film's edge as a Methodist preacher's wife. Also playing a preacher is John Lithgow, while James Spader plays a cowardly rotter. In the screenplay, based on Glendon Swathout ("The Shootist") novel, George Briggs extracts a horrible revenge.
If anyone can save the Western, even if is a Midwestern, it is stern-faced, rock solid Tommy Lee Jones. Good work son.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bells, Whistles and a Beautiful Ingenue in "Phantom"

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A “Phantom” With All The Bells and Whistles and a Special Leading Lady

By Skip Sheffield

In a telephone interview Julia Udine told me “technology has advanced so much in 30 years it is more spectacular than ever.”
She was not exaggerating. “The Phantom of the Opera,” playing through Nov. 30 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts is the most eye-popping, technically ingenious “Phantom” I have ever seen. Oh, and Julia Udine is the best Christine I have ever seen. Julia, who has been on the road for a year, steps up to Broadway after the Fort Lauderdale stop. I’ll wager she will capture hearts there too. The key to the character of Christine is that you have to fall in love with her a little bit, just like the Phantom. Yes, I did.
Cooper Grodin, who plays the Phantom, is also moving on after this stop. That’s how it is with a show that has run almost 30 years in England and is still running on Broadway.
Technical effects are very important in “The Phantom,” because face it, it’s a pretty thin story that everyone knows. It's basically a variation of "Beauty and the Beast, which predates Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel. Horribly disfigured boy with genius musical talent is caged and put on display in a carnival. He manages to escape and seek refuge in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera. It is there he remains an unseen force acknowledged only by Madame Giry (Anne Kanengeiser), once his protégée.
"Phantom" has one of the most spectacular opening scenes in modern theater; set at an action of effects and furnishings of the old Paris Opera. When Lot 666 comes up, watch out!
Yes, the national touring company of "The Phantom of the Opera" does not stint on thrills and chill, gorgeous costumes, and lovely live songs well-sung. It's an old B horror movie set to music with an especially delicate and delightful ingénue. Give our regards to Broadway Julia Udine.
Tickets are $34.75 and up. Call 800-745-3000 or go to www.browardcenter.org.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Theater Bugs for "Birdman"

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Michael Keaton Soars, Plummets in "Birdman"

By Skip Sheffield

If you love live theater, New York's live theater in particular, you will love “Birdman.” It’s as simple as that.
“Birdman” is Michael Keaton’s comeback tour de force as the title character, Riggan Thomson. Riggan is an actor and a desperate man. Perhaps that is redundant, because all actors endure desperation.
Like the real-life Michael Keaton, who starred in a couple of Tim Burton's Batman movies, Riggan Thomson starred as a superhero called Birdman, named for his ridiculous black bird outfit. He earned tons of money, but in fear of being typecast forever, Thomson walked away from the series. He hasn't worked much since; hence his desperation.
In a last-ditch attempt to rescue his career and self-esteem, Thomson has mortgaged his house and emptied his bank account to book Broadway's fabled St. James Theatre and star in a play based on a Ramond Carver story called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Could he have chosen a more awkward title?
That's just the start of Thomson's problems. Then his co-star drops out at the last minute. The divorced Thomson's girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests Riggan cast her friend Mike (Edward Norton).
Mike is an ego maniac and self-described "method actor" whose method includes not bothering to read the script.
This is Edward Norton's best comic performance ever. At times he threatens to wrestle the spotlight away from Michael Keaton.
The star remains Michael Keaton, whose many problems include a drug-addled daughter Samantha (Emma Stone) who is fresh out of rehab.
Keaton utterly debases himself in an increasingly wacky black comedy nightmare. There is nothing quite like Keaton in his tighty-whiteys, running through Times Square.
Just about anyone who has ever had the "actor's nightmare" will relate to Riggan's increasing insanity. Mexican-born director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel," "Biutiful") pairs high drama with low comedy, often in the same scene.
Many will find "Birdman" overblown and pretentious, but isn't that what theater is all about? If you understand that you will love this film. I sure do.

For Your Consideration: Eddie Redmayne

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Eddie Redmayne Best Actor 2014?

By Skip Sheffield

Ladies and gentlemen the envelope please. For your consideration, Eddie Redmayne as Best Actor 2014 Academy Awards.
Just as Rosamund Pike had her star turn in “Gone Girl,” fellow Brit Redmayne has his in “The Theory of Everything” as mathematist-physicist-philosopher Stephen Hawking.
Most of us know Hawking as the brilliant guy in a wheelchair who devised the “black hole” theory of the universe. Since 1985 Hawking has been unable to speak with his own voice due to the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
The story begins in Cambridge, U.K. in 1963 in this screenplay by Anthony McCarten, adopted from Jane Hawking's book "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen" and directed by James Marsh ("Shadow Down").
Jane Hawking must have been some kind of saint. In this story she is played by angelic Felicity Jones.
More than anything "Theory of Everything" is a love story. Stephen Hawking was diagnosed while still a student and given the grim prognosis of just two years to live. Although he was still physically mobile, Stephen was fully aware that his walking days were numbered, as would be his speaking days.
Jane was fully aware too, yet she pledged to stand by her man even when he could not stand himself. Hawking's brain remained unaffected by the disease, as was his male sexual apparatus. We meet Robert (Tom Prior), Lucy (Sophie Perry) and Timothy Hawking (Finlay Wright-Stephens) as children and teenagers.
Though "Theory of Everything" is an inspirational story of the indomitable human spirit, it is never sappy or sentimental. Indeed at times it is quite funny. Hawking had and still has a great ironic sense of humor. It is even more ironic the Stephen and Jane both moved on to new partners, yet remain best friends.
I think this is the best movie about overcoming major disability since "My Left Foot" back in 1989. That film won Daniel Day-Lewis the Oscar for his portrayal of Christy Brown, whose entire body except for his left foot was paralyzed. It was with that left foot that Brown wrote his story.
Stephen Hawking is relatively able-bodied by comparison. He just turned 70, defying all the naysayers. Here's hoping he continues his productive life for years to come.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Victoria Lauzun is Piaf

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By Skip Sheffield

Women are at the forefront of two new plays that opened this week in Delray Beach.
“Piaf” is a dramatization of the life of French torch singer Edith Piaf. This play with music runs through Dec. 14 at Delray Square Performing Arts, 4809 W. Atlantic Ave. at Military Trail.
There is a romantic, idealized view of the tragic chanteuse, and Edith Piaf certainly fits that description.
The best thing about “Piaf,” a 1978 Tony Award-winning play by Pam Gems, is its star, Victoria Lauzin. Ms. Lauzun embodies the soul of the “little sparrow,” who was born in 1915 and died of liver disease in 1963 at age 47. This comes as no surprise, considering Piaf’s reckless lifestyle. Piaf was the embodiment of “live fast, die young.”
“Every damn fool thing you do in this life you pay for,” were her famous last words. Yet “Piaf” is not a downer. It is more a salute to an indomitable spirit, known by her signature song “La Vie en Rose.”
While that rosy song is what is most people associate with Edith Piaf, my favorite is "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (No, I Regret Nothing). No, me neither.
Playing Edith's best gal pal and confidante Toine is Courtney Poston, familiar to patrons of Boca Raton's Slow Burn Theatre Company.
Like Edith, Toine is a woman of "easy virtue" in a demi-monde of seedy characters.
Providing super-human musical support is pianist Phil Hinton, who is obscured onstage behind a panel. Musical Director Hinton is at least as important as the characters. I think he should be front, if not center, but that decision is up to director Gary Waldman, who also plays Leplee and a doctor and contributed English lyrics to the French songs.
With the exception of Victoria Anderson as famed cabaret singer Josephine Baker, the rest of the cast is young and a bit uneven. But hey it's live theater in a converted movie fourplex, and if Edith Piaf is your thing, this is well worth a look.
Tickets are $37.50 ($30 group). Call 561-880-0319 or go to www.delraysquarearts.com.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Mother and Daughter Argue "The How and the Why"

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A Mother and Daughter Argue "The How and the Why"

By Skip Sheffield

Can we talk?
There is woman talk aplenty in Sarah Treem's “The How and Why,” playing through Nov. 30 at Arts Garage Theatre, 180 NW First St., Delray Beach.
“How & Why” is a daughter-mother dialogue between Rachel (Elizabeth Price), a girl given up for adoption in her infancy, and Zelda (Laura Turnbull), her blood mother who never married Rachel’s father and is now a big-deal professor of biology in Cambridge, Mass. Rachel is a graduate student in the same field, and as such is a kind of rival to her mother.
It's a good thing director Margaret Ledford cast Laura Turnbull as the mother, because the character is so unsympathetic, in the hands of a lesser actress we might just have seen her as a selfish shrew. Turner finds the pain in the character and discovers justification for Zelda's behavior.
By the same token Rachel is no model daughter. She is angry, resentful and accusatory, but there is a reason for all of it. Newcomer Elizabeth Price, an adjunct theater professor at Florida Atlantic University, finds redeeming qualities in the prideful, sorrowful Rachel.
There is a lot of technical biological stuff in Sarah Treem's script, mostly involving a woman's reproduction system. A key question is why do female humans menstruate when only a handful of species do the same thing? Theories abound.
Luckily I brought my youngest daughter and her best girlfriend to see the show. This is a play intended for women and enlightened males. However, the conflict between mother and child is universal. Feelings are bound to get hurt as we grow up and become independent. This play says to me we should appreciate our parents while we can, regardless of our relationship or lack thereof.
Tickets are $30 and $35, with $10 student rush available at show time. Call 561-450-6357 or go to www.artsgarage.org.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Rosewater" a Disconcerting True Tale

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"Rosewater" a Cautionary Tale for Our Time

By Skip Sheffield

The first time I met Gael Garcia Bernal I thought this kid is going places.
That was 13 years ago, when Bernal co-starred with Diego Luna in the sexy Mexican comedy “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Bernal went on to star in such important movies as “Motorcycle Diaries,” “The Science of Sleep” and “Babel.”
Now Bernal has the role of his 35-year-old life as Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari in “Rosewater,” a truth-based movie written and directed by Jon Stewart. If Mexican-born Bernal is not already the biggest young Latin-American star, he will be after American audiences see this gripping film.
Maziar Bahari was born and raised in Tehran, but he was a Canadian citizen based in London when Newsweek magazine hired him to cover the hotly-contested 2009 presidential election. The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a hard-line militant Islamic. His challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was a more liberal, democratic candidate.
Bahari left his pregnant wife (Claire Foy) behind in London and took up residence in his old bedroom at his mother’s (Shoreh Aghdashloo) house.
In a comical scene, Bahari engages Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), whom he first sees driving a taxi, as his driver. When Davood shows up on his tiny motorcycle, Bahari had no choice but to hop on back. It also was a good vantage point for Bahari to wield his video camera.
One of the first places Davood showed Bahari was a secret rooftop forest of forbidden satellite dishes that enabled young students and dissidents to keep in touch with what was going on in the free world.
When the incumbent president was re-elected in a landslide, students and dissidents took to the streets in a spontaneous demonstration. With his camera running, Bahari caught Islamic police firing on the unarmed students. The volatile video was smuggled out of the country and Bahari filed his story for Newsweek. Not long after that the police came knocking at dawn on June 21, 2009. They said “Get dressed,” put Bahari in handcuffs and led him away to the notorious Evin Prison.
The balance of the film is largely the daily interrogation of Bahari, who was blindfolded much of the time. While Bahari was roughed up from time to time, the real torture was the psychological warfare carried out good cop (Nassir Faris) bad cop (Haluk Bilginer) style. It is no wonder Bahari broke down after implicit threats to his mother, wife and unborn daughter. Yet even under the greatest duress Bahari show a sense of humor by concocting ever more ridiculous conspiracy stories until he buckled and "confessed" in a videotaped statement.
The ordeal went on for 118 days, but it is never really over as long as a totalitarian government tramples the rights of people. As I write this, journalist Jason Rezalan has been languishing in the same Evin Prison for more than 100 without being charged with any specific crime.
Jon Stewart has done a service to freedom-lovers everywhere by bringing this drama to light and to Gael Garcia Bernal in particular for giving him such a powerful vehicle to demonstrate his talent.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nicole Kidman, Damsel-in-Distress

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Nicole Kidman in Distress Again

By Skip Sheffield

Nicole Kidman makes one fine damsel-in-distress. Who can forget her performance in the extremely weird “Eyes Wide Shut?”
Ms. Kidman is in peril once again as an amnesiac wife in the mystery-thriller “Before I Go To Sleep.” Some terrible brain trauma happened to Christine Lucas (Kidman), a British housewife who wakes up each morning with a blank slate. She can’t remember who she is, what she does, where she has been or even if Ben (Colin Firth), the man who cares for her, is really her husband.
If we weren’t treated to extreme close-ups of Kidman’s pretty face and beautiful blue eyes there wouldn’t be much reason to watch “Before I Go To Sleep,” which is directed and adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe (“The American”) from the 2011 first novel by S. J. Watson.
Amnesia is a flimsy but ever-popular premise for a mystery-thriller. It is easy to shoot holes in the credibility of the plot, but it is fun to watch Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth emoting up a storm. Then there is Mark Strong as Christine’s psychiatrist. Is he a good guy or bad? Does he have ulterior motives?
British novelist Watson has a certain amount of medical training, which enables him to make Christine’s convenient amnesia more believable. Still, there are many “Oh, come on” moments and a “What the..” ending. Yet any movie that quotes A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” word-for-word gains points in my book.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Every Girl a Princess at "Cinderella"

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"Cinderella" To Enchant Miami and West Palm Beach

By Skip Sheffield

You are not likely to find a more gorgeous stage musical than “Cinderella,” playing through Nov. 2 at the Arsht Center in Miami. The production will travel to Kravis Center in West Palm Beach Nov. 11-16.
This is the first national touring production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that first saw light as a 1957 television special, starring a young Julie Andrews. It was at the time the most-watched television show in history.
R&H re-teamed for a stage musical in 1965 starring Leslie Ann Warren. A 1997 revival starred Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother.
Most of us remember "Cinderella" from the 1950 Walt Disney animated version. The stage version of the story is much simpler, based on a European folk story hundreds of years old and popularized in English by the Brothers Grimm as one of "Grimm's Fairy Tales" in the 19th century.
The national tour boasts fabulous costumes and nifty stage effects, which include a harness that enables Marie (Kecia Lewis) the Fairy Godmother to levitage and soar above the Arsht Center stage. This is not one of R&H's best scores, but the band is live and very good.
Kecia Lewis is one of several delights as one of the sauciest Godmothers you will ever see.
Soprano Paige Faure is so tiny, doll-like and slim she embodies the fairy-like spirit named Ella, called Cinderella by her cruel stepmother named Madame (Beth Glover) and her selfish stepsisters Charlotte (Aymee Garcia) and Gabrielle (Ashley Park).
Prince Charming in this edition is called Topher (Andy Jones), short for Christopher. Jones is a handsome, fine tenor befitting his character.
The manipulative Sebastion, the Prince's chief advisor, is played with gusto and humor by Blake Hammond. The good guy who fights for villagers' rights is Jean-Michel, played by David Andino. One of the best voices in the cast belongs to Antoine L. Smith as Lord Pinkerton, who serves as a kind of herald.
One of the most amazing things about the show is Cinderella's incredibly fast costume changes before our very eyes. One minute she is Ella the cinder girl and the next her dress and even her hair are changed for the enchanting girl who will instantly win the Prince's heart.
If you have young daughters, bring them to "Cinderella." They will feel enchanted too.
For ticket information call the Arsht Center at 305-949-6722 or TicketMaster at 800-745-3000. For Kravis Center call 800-572-8471 or go to www.kravis.org.

Monday, October 27, 2014

All Song, All Dance, All Joyful "Swing!"

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"Swing!" a Singing, Dancing Nostalgiafest.

By Skip Sheffield

Give your mind a rest and just “Swing!”
The Wick Theatre kicks off its second season with the nostalgic Big Band song and dance revue “Swing!,” continuing through Nov. 16 at the Countess deHoernle Theatre, 5901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton.
Most of the song and dance routines in “Swing!” are from the World War II era, but some date back to the 1930s, when the Big Band craze started.
For those of us in the Baby Boom generation, World War II was still fresh when we were growing up. There have been so many wars in the years since World War II seems innocent by comparison.
So yes, "Swing!" is unapologetically nostalgic. What makes it special are the superbly limber, agile, athletic dancers male and female. The stage is set by the 1931 Duke Ellington classic "It Don't Mean a Thing" (If It Ain't Got That Swing), and the action continues non-stop for 24 numbers, with a brief intermission and another 11 numbers concluding with a big all-star finale.
In all there are an even dozen dancers with Lindsay Bell the captain under the overall direction of Kelly Shook. Featured singers are Alix Paige and Michael Ursua and there is an onstage band led by pianist and musical director Paul Reekie. A special tip of the hat to trombonist Jason Pyle, who makes his instrument "talk" with a mute on the showcase number "Cry Me a River" with Amelia Millar and Pyle trading vocal and instrumental licks.
This show transports me back to my formative years when our father, a Big Band fan of the first order, played the music of the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Fats Waller and Frank Sinatra at maximum volume, much to the annoyance of our neighbors. There are few things in life as happy and optimistic than music of the Big Band era. If you need a lift, here it is.
Tickets are $58-$62. Call 561-995-2333 or go to www.thewick.org.



Friday, October 24, 2014

Billy Crudup is "Rudderless"

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Billy Crudup a Haunted Soul in "Rudderless"

By Skip Sheffield

In brief, “Rudderless” is playing in only one venue, the Tower Theater in Miami, but this directorial debut by actor William H. Macy is now available by Video on Demand (VOD) if you so desire.
Billy Crudup plays Sam Penning, a high-powered advertising executive whose life blows up when his estranged son Josh (Miles Heizer) inexplicably goes on a rampage, murdering six fellow students at Central Plains State University. Sam immediately starts drowning his sorrows in alcohol. Divorced from his wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) he buys a sailboat and lives aboard, staying drunk most of the time. Sam hits the bottom of the barrel when he is fired from his menial house-painting job. When Emily dumps a load of his son’s effects on him, he discovers a number of CDs with really promising songs. He starts playing his son’s guitar and singing his songs. At the urging of young local musician Quentin (Anton Yelchin), Sam plays at a bar’s open mic night. Quentin enlists some other boys, and soon a full band is playing Josh Penning’s songs to local acclaim. With the help of a local music shop owner (Laurence Fisburne) the band seems poised to tour professionally, but when Josh’s old girlfriend (Selena Gomez) shows up, the gig is up.
Crudup shows what a fine actor he is, and Macy, who plays a small part, shows impressive directorial chops. It doesn’t hurt that co-star Felicity Huffman is his wife. As a struggling musician myself, I found “Rudderless” quite pertinent.

"Blue Room" a Morality Lesson

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Sex and Murder Most Foul in “The Blue Room”

By Skip Sheffield

“The Wages of Sin is death.”

That’s what it says in the Bible, Romans 6:23. I doubt that’s what Belgian novelist Georges Simenon was thinking when he wrote his novel “The Blue Room.”
“Blue Room” is the basis for a sexy French murder mystery written by and starring Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). Amalric plays Julien Gahyde, a farm equipment salesman with a lovely wife Delphine (Lea Drucker) and a somewhat fragile daughter Suzanne (Mona Jaffart).
We meet Julien in bed with Esther Despierre (Stenanie Cleau).
“Do you love me Julien?” she says.
“”I think so,” he replies.
We then cut to a police interrogation of Julien. How many times has he enjoyed the carnal company of Esther? Only eight times in 11 months,” he replies.
The entire movie cuts back and forth between events leading up to two suspicious deaths, and the subsequent police investigation and court trial of the suspects. Although there is nudity and implied sex, rarely has an affair been so unsexy.
Why do people stray? In Julien’s case it seems to be boredom accompanied by opportunity. Esther’s ailing husband, a doctor, is rarely around the flat they have above a pharmacy, where Esther works. Suzanne has many allergies and maladies, so Julien regularly visits the pharmacy. Though he professes love for Delphine, it is obvious the thrill is gone, and she knows it. A weekend getaway to the Riviera fails to re-fire the passion of a love dying.
Meanwhile Esther is putting on the pressure for Julien to make a decision: divorce his wife and marry her or end the affair.
Mathieu Amalric is adept at portraying a weak character with a guilty conscience. As the investigation and trail wear on, Esther is interrogated too. Actress Stephanie Cleau co-wrote the screen adaptation with Amalric, so they are literally on the same page.
If you like mysteries with murder most foul, done with a Gallic twist, it is fun trying to second-guess the plot twists. Georges Simenon was after all a master of murder mysteries, and his famous detective, Jules Maigret, is the Gallic equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.

Fight Racism With Satire

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Satirical “Dear White People” Uses Laughter as Weapon

By Skip Sheffield

One of the best ways to fight racism is with humor, and in particular, satire.
“Dear White People” is a satire about racism on the college campus. It won writer/director Justin Simien Sundance Film Festival’s 2014 Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. The timing is certainly right, for the key climactic scene takes place at a Halloween costume party.
The setting is fictitious Winchester University, presumably somewhere in the South. Winchester is a private school filled with wealthy, white snobs, jocks and frat boys. The four main characters are “token” black people admitted to help the school fill its minimum of minority students so donors could pat themselves on the back for being so tolerant.
Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) is the most militant, activist member of the group- never afraid to speak out against perceived injustices. Perhaps not ironically she has the lightest skin. In the days before political correctness she would have been known as a mulatto. It can also be an insult.
Sam’s male counterpart is Troy Fairbanks, a handsome, ambitious, seemingly ideal guy who secretly has some bad traits that may get in the way of his desire to be class president.
Colandra “Coco” Conners is a sexy, gregarious woman who makes her views known on a public “Vlog” (video blog).
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is the closest thing to an everyman character- that is if everyman had a bushy, towering Afro hairdo straight out of 1968.
In case we miss these characters are types, the director labels and defines them at the start of the story. Then he goes on to confound those stereotypes.
The white characters are for the most part stereotypes too, except for Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), editorial of the school paper who has liberal tendencies. We will see how liberal as the story unfolds.
The two main authority figures are Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), a man who seems equally wise to the ways of white and black people, and President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen), whose main concern is keeping benefactors happy.
It seems like race relations haven’t improved much since I was a college student, eons ago. At least with this film we have Justin Simien shining a light in dark corners and saying “Hey people, these things still exist,” yet with the beneficial balm of humor.

Monday, October 20, 2014

In Time for Halloween is "Carrie: The Musical"

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Just in Time for Halloween: “Carrie: The Musical”

By Skip Sheffield

It’s not exactly the feel-good show of the season, but Slow Burn Theatre’s “Carrie: The Musical,” playing through Nov. 2 at West Boca High School Performing Arts Theater, is nothing if not diverting and entertaining.
Stephen King’s novel of religious zealotry, high school bullying, teenage cruelty and telekinesis seems an unlikely choice for a stage musical. It still is.
That’s why the 1988 Broadway debut of the $8 million production was deemed a “notorious flop.” In fact some audience members booed as the final curtain rang down opening night.
Slow Burn artistic director Patrick Fitzwater has never been one to back down from a challenge. Once again he has met it by adapting an improved script and hand-picking the youngest cast of highly talented performers, aided and abetted by three older pros.
The pedigree of “Carrie: The Musical” is impressive. The book is by Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the screenplay for the 1976 movie version of Stephen King’s hit 1974 novel. The music is by Leslie’s younger brother Michael Gore, who won an Oscar for his 1981 “Fame” soundtrack, and Dean Pitchford, who also won an Oscar for collaborating on that film.
Fitzwater and musical director Caryl Fantel have concentrated on the musicality of the show. The ensemble harmonies are virtually flawless, and Fitzwater cast Equity powerhouse Shelly Keeler in her Slow Burn debut in the crucial role of Carrie’s mother, Margaret White.
“Religious zealot” is not really a strong enough description of Margaret White. Her narrow, fundamentalist view of what is sinful and what is good is obsessive and borders on demented. Her husband has understandably left her, adding bile to her bitter, warped view of life.
Her only daughter, poor Carrie (Anne Chamberlain), bears the brunt of her resentments. As a result Carrie is stunted emotionally and even physically. Although she is 17, Carrie has never had a period. When it comes, at the worst possible time in the school shower, it sets in motions a series of events that will end horribly at the high school prom.
Shelly Keeler is far and away the best, strongest singer in the cast. This helps balance the fact she is playing such a disagreeable character. Keeler brings home the pain and anguish of Margaret in the ballad “When There’s No One,” which is also the best song of the score.
Anne Chamberlain holds her own with her monster mom. Her character is described as “not pretty,” but Chamberlain is. This does not detract from her torment.
Jessica Brooke Sanford is the sympathetic Ying of Sue Snell, who attempts to defend Carrie. Cristina Flores is the cruel Yang of Chris, Carrie’s malicious classmate who hatches the plot that goes so horribly wrong.
Alexander Zenoz is most appealing as Tommy, Carrie’s good-guy prom date. Kristian Bikic is appropriately punkish as juvenile delinquent Billy.
Serving yeoman duty as the responsible adults as Anne Marie Olson as gym teacher Miss Gardiner and Matthew Korinko as school principal Mr. Stephens.
The timing of “Carrie: The Musical” couldn’t be better. This show is the perfect setup for the harmless hijinks of Halloween.

Tickets are $40. Student and Theater League discount tickets are available at the door. Shows are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 866-811-4111 or go to slowburntheatre.org.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reese Witherspoon Does a Good Deed in "Good Lie"








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Reese Witherspoon Does a Good Deed with “The Good Lie”

By Skip Sheffield

Reese Witherspoon did a good thing when she agreed to star in and promote “The Good Lie.” The title is taken from a term in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”
This truth-based movie, written by Margaret Nagle and directed by Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”) dramatizes the plight and flight of the “Lost Boys” from civil war-torn Sudan. We meet the “boys” (and one girl) as children. Ruthless militia invades their village, kill the adults and torch the huts.
A half-dozen children flee blindly. When a soldier spots one of them hiding in tall grass, the eldest,Theo (Okawr Jale), stands up and surrenders himself, saving the other children.
The group encounters a mass march and learns they are heading for safer territory in Kenya. After walking almost 800 miles and losing one of the boys to illness, the remaining four make it to a refugee camp. They are issued clothes and food by Red Cross volunteers. After putting their names on a waiting list, the quartet is overjoyed to learn they have been accepted in a program to take them to the USA to gain asylum. The joy is tempered by sorrow when the boys learn their sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) cannot go with them to Kansas City because of some arbitrary immigration regulation. Abital is sent to a foster family in Boston. The boys continue to Kansas City, where they are picked up at the airport by a somewhat scatterbrained employment agency counselor, Carrie Davis, played by Reese Witherspoon. Though Witherspoon is top-billed in movie ads, she does not make her appearance until 35 minutes into the film, and her entrance is not grand. If anything dark-haired Carrie is the anti-“Legally Blond” glamour girl. Carrie wears sloppy clothes and has an even sloppier apartment. She curses, drinks beer and has temper tantrums, but at heart she is a good soul. So is her tolerant boss, Jack (Corey Stoll).
There are many comical fish-out-of water scenes when the boys encounter American technologies, customs, and attempt to be gainfully employed.
Aspiring doctor Mamere (Arnold Oceng) is the natural leader of the group and literally a Chief since his older brother Theo was seized.
Tall, lanky Jeremiah (Ger Duany) is a spiritual person and sensitive soul who learns some harsh lessons about America’s materialist ways.
Paul (Emmanuel Jai) is the more rebellious and resentful of the group, which will cause problems.
All the African characters are played by real Sudanese refugees, which adds authenticity to an otherwise fictional plot. There is a strong but unobtrusive Christian message in the story. The only book the group has is a Bible, and the people who save them are professed Christians.

If you in need of a feel-good, we-are-the-world kind of movie, this is one for you. The situation in all of Africa has only worsened since Sudan refugees were cut off after 9/11, but for the 3,600 “Lost Boys’ who made it to the USA, there are heartwarming messages at film’s end.

Not the Stars, the Fault is in the Internet

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The Fault is in the Internet, Not the Stars

By Skip Sheffield

Everyone is messed up in “Men, Women and Children.”
That’s all you need to know about this latest offering from Jason Reitman, who brought us the superior “Juno” and “Up in the Air.”
Yes, everyone is messed up, and it’s the fault of the Internet. That’s the short version of the novel by Chad Kultgen, on which the screenplay is based.
We follow a representative group of Texas high school students and their parents as they navigate the perils of the Internet age.
It’s not exactly news that most teenagers keep their eyes trained on handheld devices, and that they would rather text than talk.
I feel like an old fart because I do not have an Iphone and I refuse to text, but there are some people my age who don’t even have a computer.
Don Truby (Adam Sandler in a relatively straight role) and his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are plugged in and turned on, but not to each other. That’s where the trouble begins.
Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner frumped up with glasses and a severe hairdo) is an uptight control freak who insists on knowing where her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) is every minute of the day. You know the type, and it rarely turns out well
Kent Mooney (Dean Norris) is a recently-divorced, basically decent guy who is clueless as to how to get back into dating or how to deal with his teenage son Tim (Ansel Elgort, of “The Fault in Our Stars”), who is falling for a nice girl named Allison (Elena Kampouris).
Then there is Brooke (Katherine C. Hughes), a beautiful girl whose mom Donna (Judy Greer) wants her to succeed in show business so badly she is almost like her pimp.

Well it goes on; video game addiction, porn on the Internet, the dangers of chat rooms, anorexia, infidelity, inability to appreciate the simple, natural things in life. “Men, Women and Children” has its merits, a few laughs and some somber moments, but mostly it is things we already know, acted out by good-looking people.

General Sherman Said It Best

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War is Hellacious in “Fury”

By Skip Sheffield

“War is Hell!” General William Techumseh Sherman famously declared.
Sherman knew only too well. He was an early advocate of “Total War,” which he demonstrated with a vengeance with his infamous, devastating “March to the Sea” through Georgia in the War Between the States.
“Fury” puts the viewer in the center of a “Total War.” The story is set in the desperate last days of World War II in Germany, April 1945. Allied forces are attempting to conquer Germany, town by town, and the Nazis have desperately pressed into service every man, woman and child to fight back. Those who refused were hanged as traitors.
Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is a scarred veteran of the war who commands a Sherman tank (note the name) which has the hand-painted word “Fury” on its cannon barrel.
Contrasting with courageous, confident Collier is a new recruit named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who has been pulled out of a typing pool and pressed into service as a tank gunner.
In a plot device that echoes Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage,” Norman will spend the rest of the story ridiculed and shunned until he mans up and becomes the killing machine he is ordered to be.
There is nothing pretty or light about “Fury.” There is some rough humor amongst the rag-tag tank crew, which includes Michael Pena as driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia, Jon Bernthal as obnoxious good old Georgia boy Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis, Jim Parrack as the level-headed Sgt. Binkowski and Shia LaBoeuf as the religious, moral voice, Boyd “Bible” Swan.
There are only two women of note in the story. As the tank presses further inland it encounters a bombed-out village in which two women are hiding in a building. Collier and Norman Ellison scout the building and encounter a German woman named Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and her pretty young niece Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). It is love at first sight for Norman and Emma, but it is a sadly brief interlude.

The main problem with “Fury” is that most of us have already heeded Sherman’s warning. You don’t have to be a veteran to know war is a terrible thing, but perhaps people need to be reminded again and again. Remember “The Alamo.”

King Versus Cub in "The Judge"

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A Young Lion and The King of The Jungle Square Off in “The Judge”

By Skip Sheffield

There is a reason Robert Downey, Jr. is the highest paid actor in movies today.
“You are the best,” admitted Robert Duvall simply.
Spoiler alert: Duvall was speaking as his character of Judge Hank Palmer in “The Judge.” Downey plays his estranged son, Joseph Palmer.
Joe returns to his small Missouri home town from Chicago, where he is a hotshot lawyer, when he receives word his mother has died. Joe’s pugnacious attitude is established in a brief, funny scene in a men’s room early in the movie.
Joe hasn’t really dealt with his old man since he went off to college. In fact he has not returned home since that time.
Hank Palmer has a reputation has a reputation as a tough but fair judge. His confidence is shaken with the passing of his beloved wife, but there is something else bothering him. His entire reputation is put to the test when a young man on a bicycle is killed by a motorist. Circumstantial evidence points to blood of the victim and damage on Hank Palmer’s vintage 1971 Cadillac.
A young lawyer named C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) is hired to defend Hank Palmer, but Joe Palmer knows from the outset Kennedy is no match for shark-like lawyer Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton, in fine form) as the prosecutor. Dickham wants no less than a first-degree murder charge.
Director David Dobkin brings out a fair amount of humor, much of it raunchy, but it is the father-son battle that is the heart of Nick Schenk’s (“Gran Torino”) screenplay.
There is plenty of dysfunction in the Palmer family. Older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) was a champion baseball player in college, but a car accident with a 17-year-old Joe Palmer at the wheel put an end to that career.
Younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) is evidently mentally disabled and dependent on his family for care.
Providing strong support as Joe’s high school sweetheart, Samantha Powell, is Vera Farminga. Intriguing as Sam’s alluring daughter Carla is Leighton Meester.

The main attraction is the two leads: a young lion and an aging king of the jungle. Duvall looks older than his 72-year-old character, but there is a reason for that two. “The Judge” is a quality movie for mature adults.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gay and Union "Pride"

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Unlikely Allies Feel “Pride”
By Skip Sheffield
“Pride” is another fact-based story inspired by the highly unlikely alliance between the striking National Union of Mineworkers and a ragtag group of London gay and lesbian activists in the United Kingdom in 1984, when ultra-conservative Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
Thatcher was known as the “Iron Lady,” and she didn’t intend to knuckle under to Welsh miners who wanted increased pay and better working conditions. One would assume she was even less in favorite of flamboyant, noisy homosexuals.
Written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus (“God of Carnage”), “Pride” is essentially a comedy- a colorful one at that- with a social conscience. It has a young and eclectic cast, with Ben Schnetzer as the heterosexual Northern Irish champion of both groups. Old pros include Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy.

“Pride” is a word often used by gay and lesbian activists who will love this movie. This little film may make straight people better understand that pride, for if burly, begrimed macho miners can find common ground with flouncy, prancing homosexuals, who cannot learn to get along?