Thursday, June 26, 2014

One Tough "Obvious Child"

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“Obvious Child” a Feminist Romantic Comedy

By Skip Sheffield

Jenny Slate is one gutsy woman. As star of “Obvious Child” she is at the center of a storm of controversy.
In 2009 Slate gained notoriety by accidentally dropping the “F bomb” on Saturday Night Live, which effectively sank her chances as a cast member. That same year she starred in a 20-minute short that grew into “Obvious Child.” The role of female stand-up comedian was created expressly for Slate by writer-director Gillian Robspierre with Karen Maine.
It took Robspierre four years to cobble together finances to produce “Obvious Child.” Now that the film is finally complete, in theaters June 27, a protest movement has been launched over NBC-TV’s refusal to run a trailer advertising the film. The reason? Abortion is a key part of the plot.
Planned Parenthood was out in force at the advance screening of “Obvious Child” in Boca Raton. The organization fears the conservative movement will take away a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have a child. It’s an emotional, divisive issue, and it is not funny at all. Yet “Obvious Child” is a comedy mostly, about Jenny Slate’s hapless Jewish stand-up comic from Brooklyn named Donna Stern. Donna’s self-deprecating shtick is about her shortcomings as an ideal woman. It really is funny, at times blunt and gross subjects, as delivered by Slate. We meet Donna during a particularly bad stretch of luck. Her boyfriend has dumped her for another, prettier woman. The tiny, offbeat used book store where she works days is going out of business.
One night, drowning her sorrow, Donna hits it off with Max (Jack Lacy), a nice guy from Vermont. They end up at his apartment, and Donna awakes the next morning wondering what happened. Max is a responsible adult and he had a condom, but sometimes there are slipups. It is not much later Donna takes a pregnancy test and leans she has been impregnated.
Donna is resolute about getting an abortion as early as possible. Her parents Jacob (Richard Kind) and Nancy Stern (Polly Draper) are understanding and supportive. Donna does not even tell Max the news, and when the truth comes out, Max, who has fallen in love with her, is entirely on Donna’s side.
You could call “Obvious Child” a feminist comedy-romance. Obviously if you equate abortion with murder you are going to hate this film, so be advised of the subject matter. I am a firm supporter of the First Amendment, and I feel people have a right to see this film if they want to. I just hope we don’t see protests with metaphorical pitchforks and torches.


French Cuisine Ribbed in "Le Chef"

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“Le Chef” a French Food Farce

By Skip Sheffield

First we had the American romantic Comedy “Chef” by Jon Favreau. Now we have the French comedy “Le Chef,” by Daniel Cohen.
“Le Chef” stars the great Jean Reno as an autocratic, temperamental but enormously popular haute cuisine chef, Alexandre Legarde.
Michael Youn is young acolyte Jacky Bonnot, who idolizes Legarde so much he has memorized his recipes.
Alexandre Lagarde has his own live TV show promoting the glories of classical French cuisine, but change is in the air in the form of Stanislas Matter (Julien Boisslier), the manipulative new CEO of the group that owns the building Legarde’s restaurant, Cargo Legarde, occupies. Matter thinks Legarde’s classic French menu is old hat and that the new and trendy molecular gastronomy is the future of dining.
“Le Chef” is a comedy for serious haute cuisine foodies, for it pokes fun both at the traditional and at the outlandish and not necessarily delicious new cuisine.
It is also a romantic comedy. Jacky has a beautiful girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaelle Agogue) with whom he lives and who is pregnant with his child. When Jacky loses his job and lies about it, trouble looms.
Divorced Alexandre has an old flame Carole (Rebecca Miquel), who has a restaurant of her own.
“Le Chef” is at times becomes a French farce. A high point comes when Alexandre and Jacky are disguised by makeup by sous chef Chang (Bun-Hay Mean) as a visiting Japanese couple so they can spy on the rival chef Cyril Boss (James Gerard), who despises Legrand and thinks Jacky is an amateur.
Food critics and their ability to make or break a restaurant are also satirized.

“Le Chef” is pleasant light comedy that is unlikely to change the way you think about high end food snobs, but at least you get a few chuckles at their expense.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Man in Black Joyfully Celebrated

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“Ring of Fire” a Joy to Behold at Arts Garage

Wow! Just wow.

That seems to be the best way to describe “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical” at Arts Garage in Delray Beach through July 13.
Despite the title, “Ring of Fire” is not as much about Johnny Cash the man as it is about the great American music he loved. If you want a Johnny Cash biography, check out the movie “I Walk the Line,” with Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black.
You will hear “I Walk the Line” in Act Two of this musical revue as part of a recreation of the Grand Ole Opry. Recently the 1956 song was recently voted the best country song of all time by Rolling Stone readers.
You will also hear "Man in Black" and the title song, “Ring of Fire,” which Cash wrote with his beloved wife June Carter. In all there are 40 tunes Cash either wrote or made famous.
“Ring of Fire” is performed by a cast of three women and five men, performing in couples, en masse and separately. Each performer is a multi-instrumentalist and singer. Watching performers switch instruments is part of the charm of this show. The show is co-directed by Sherry Lutken and her husband David M. Lutken, who is also onstage singing deep bass parts and playing a variety of stringed instruments. The musical director, who also sings and plays keyboards, is Eric Anthony, who directed the show for its brief Broadway run.
If there is a utility player it is little Nyssa Duchow, a classically-trained musician who plays country-style fiddle and guitar and mandolin and accordion all while singing in a lovely soprano voice.
The other two women are Broadway professionals Deb Lyons and Helen Jean Russell, who plays both autoharp and upright bass.
Neil Friedman, who is artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, plays the all-purpose gruff, tough Southern guy. According to Sam Sherwood’s bio he has loved Johnny Cash’s music all his life, and it shows in his enthusiasm. Jon Brown is a veteran of the country-musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes” and has written his own rock musical.
Conceived by William Meade and created by Richard Maltby, Jr., “Ring of Fire” covers the Southern Music waterfront from traditional gospel to folk to rock ‘n’ roll. The versatility of the musician-singers is dazzling. I have not seen such a concentration of talent live onstage in many years. “Ring of Fire” is a joy to behold even if you don’t give a fig about Johnny Cash.
Tickets are $30-$45. Call 561-450-6357 or go to www.artsgarage.org.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Ida" a Moody Post-Holocaust Memoir From Poland

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“Ida” a Melancholy Post-Holocaust Memoir

By Skip Sheffield

“Ida” is a post-Holocaust film set in Poland in 1962. The story, written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowsi (“The Last Resort,” “My Summer of Love”) is centered on the aftermath of the terrible events of World War II in Poland and specifically on their effect on a middle-aged woman who lived through the ordeal and her 18-year-old niece, who was just an infant when her family was murdered, presumably by Nazis.
Anna (stunningly beautiful newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) was raised in an orphanage and is now a novice in a convent. She is about ready to take her vows, but the Mother Superior requests- nay orders- her to visit her one surviving relative before she dedicates her life to the Catholic Church.
The relative is her Aunt Wanda, whom she has never met. Anna’s initial encounter with Wanda is rocky.
“I know who are,” says Wanda (Agata Kulesza) gruffly when Anna introduces herself. “They didn’t tell you who I am or what I do?”
Anna is in for some shocks. For one thing her name is not Anna but Ida Lebenstein and she was born Jewish.
“So you are a Jewish nun?” mocks Wanda.
Wanda and Ida are polar opposites. Ida is chaste, pious and na├»ve. Wanda is worldly, faithless and cynical. She is a high-ranking official in the Socialist Party of Poland, and as such she is an atheist. She is a chain-smoker, a heavy drinker and a self-described “slut.”
“Ida” is very short- less than 90 minutes- and shot in moody black-and-white. It is more about the relationship between the two women than it is about the Holocaust. However, the Holocaust will re-impact itself upon the characters in a tragic way.
“Ida” is part mystery story and part coming-of-age. It is all melancholy and downbeat. If you understand that upfront you can appreciate the artistry of this melancholy memoir shot by a Pole returning to his homeland for the first time since childhood.

Johnny Cash Musical Opens at Arts Garage
On a much cheerier note, “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical” opens Friday, June 20 and continues through July13 at Arts Garage, 180 N.W. First St., Delray Beach.
The title comes from one of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits, written with his beloved wife June Carter. The show is a musical revue with more than 30 of Cash’s greatest hits, performed by eight singer-actors representing various eras in Cash’s career.
Tickets are $30-$45. Call 561-450-6357 or go to www.artsgarage.org.






Stereotypes Abound in "Jersey Boys"

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An Expanded Movie of “Jersey Boys”

By Skip Sheffield

Who loves you pretty mama? Clint Eastwood, the Four Seasons and “Jersey Boys” do.
“Jersey Boys” is a film adaptation of the hit Broadway show that featured the best songs of New Jersey Italian-American vocal group, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. It won the 2006 Best Musical Tony Award and Best Actor for star John Lloyd Young.
Young reprises his role as lead singer Frankie Valli in a screenplay adapted by Marshall Brickman (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan”) and Rick Elice. Noted music aficionado Clint Eastwood is the director.
The movie centers more on the personal struggles of four young Italian-Americans in northern New Jersey than did the stage musical, which was more like a Four Seasons concert with story on the side.
Judging by this movie, you would think everyone in Jersey “tawks like dis” and had mob connections. I spent two of the happiest summers of my life in New Jersey and I know this is an unfair stereotype, but for this movie it serves the dramatic purpose. The Four Seasons as a group struggled a lot for their success and Frankie Valli struggled the most of all to be a good, honest family man in a corrupting business.
The story begins in 1954. Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) is best friends with brothers Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick DeVito (Johnny Cannizzaro). The boys love singing together when they are not engaged in petty crime. The movie begins with a funny botched theft of a safe, instigated by Tommy DeVito. Tommy may have been a shady character but he could play guitar and sing. He became a core part of the group that would become known as the Four Seasons, with his brother Nick, Valli and songwriter-singer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). In a funny but true footnote, it was actor Joe Peschi who introduced the boys to hit-maker Bob Gaudio, who in turn introduced them to lyricist and producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle).
Crewe is portrayed as a flaming gay guy, which may or may not have been true. This is a story full of stereotypes and black-and-white judgments. Frankie Valli emerges as the hero. Tommy DeVito is the villain who swindled the group of a huge amount of money. Christopher Walken is a scene-stealer as Gyp DeCarlo, a kind of Godfather and fixer for the boys. The reality is there was probably a lot of gray area. Some characters, like Boca Raton resident Charles Calello, are given short shrift, but the important part is the music. The Four Seasons reconciled for their installation in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

I think the music is stronger and more exciting in the stage musical because it is live. What is undeniable is that John Lloyd Young gives an amazing performance both musically and dramatically as Frankie Valli. If you didn’t appreciate Frankie Valli before, you will after seeing this film.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Flop on Broadway a Hit in West Boca

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“High Fidelity” a Flop on Broadway But a Hit in West Boca

By Skip Sheffield

“High Fidelity” was a flop on Broadway but it is a real treat as revived by Slow Burn Theatre through June 29 at West Boca Raton High School Performing Arts Center.
The show is based on British novelist Nick Hornby’s 1995 book, which became the basis for a sleeper movie hit in 2000 starring John Cusack and Jack Black. “High Fidelity” ran only 13 performances on Broadway before the plug was pulled. My guess is the New York audience didn’t get it. As a musician and vinyl record fan, I do. It helps to be a fan of rock ‘n’ roll music, which many older theater-goers are not.
Playing the John Cusack role of small, independent record shop owner Rob Gorgon is Robert Johnston. Johnston was impressive in a previous Boca Raton performance for Outre Theatre’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” and he is even more winning this time as feckless twenty-something guy who hasn’t quite figured out his life. One thing he does know is that he loves his “Last Real Record Store” and his fellow misfit friends who operate the place. One thing the enterprise is not is profitable. Some days go by without a single record sale.
Because of his indecision, lack of communication (except through mix tapes) and poor career path, Rob’s girlfriend Laura (powerhouse singer Nicole Piro) is rightfully frustrated. She is so frustrated she decides to break up with Rob and move out.
This prompts Rob to sing the self-pitying “Desert Island Top 5 Break-Ups,” backed up cheerfully by five former girlfriends (Courtney Poston, Abby Perkins, Christina Flores, Sandi M. Stock and Kaitlyn O’Neill).
Rob’s geeky friends commiserate with him. They are a quartet of losers: shy Dick (Bruno Vida of angelic tenor voice); pathetic Bruce, “The Most Pathetic Man in the World,” or TMPMITW for short (Larry Buzzeo); brash Barry (Sebastian Lombardo), who has a crappy band he thinks should play in the shop, and a guy with a towering Mohawk hairdo (Alex Zenoz) who wanders in and out of the action. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
As it turns out Rob does have an enemy: the smarmy New Age guru Ian (Noah Levine) who has his sights set on vulnerable Laura. Ian’s biggest claim to fame was staging an intervention with Kurt Cobain. If you don’t know the Nirvana principal songwriter and singer you will miss the joke.
Levine’s insufferable egotist is the funniest character in the show, followed closely by Sebastian Lombardo’s “Sonic Death Money” band. My favorite number comes in a dramatic role reversal when Larry Buzzeo’s “Most Pathetic Man” becomes The Boss himself: Bruce Springsteen in “Turn the World Off (And You On).” The real Bruce Springsteen was in the movie, but Buzzeo is the next best thing
Tom Kitt, composer of the dramatic “Next To Normal,” has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink collection of songs, from folk and ballads to hard-core punk, all backed up by what I think is the best band ever at Slow Burn, under the direction of the always-resourceful Manny Schvartzman. For the record Sandy Poltarack is a killer guitarist and Rupert Ziawinski can do no wrong on bass.
Sean McClelland’s highly-mobile set is especially ingenious. The microphone sound wasn’t up to snuff in our preview, but I trust it is dialed in by now.
If you love John Tesh you will probably not like this show. If you were born 1975 or later, you probably will. I’m older than that but I appreciated “High Fidelity” as the ultimate hipster musical that struggles to answer the question “Do you listen to pop music because you are miserable or are you miserable because you listen to pop music?
Shows are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 866-811-4111 or go to www.slowburntheatre.org.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Delightful Dragons for Children and Adults

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“Dragon 2” Family Fun for Kids of All Ages

By Skip Sheffield

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a surprisingly entertaining sequel for the child in all of us.
Canadian director Dean DeBlois adapted Cressida Cowell’s book series for the first “How To Train Your Dragon” computer-animated adventure in 2010 and wrote and directed this sequel as well.
Most of the major characters have returned, including the main character of Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel. In the first episode, in order to please his fearsome Viking father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler in Scottish brogue), little Hiccup shot down a black flying dragon, but did not have the heart to kill it. Dragons you see had been plaguing the Viking inhabitants of Berk Island. Hiccup instead befriended the woebegone creature and nicknamed him Toothless. All the Vikings then realized dragons could be their friends.
Also returning is America Ferrera as the voice of Hiccup’s plucky girlfriend Astrid; Craig Ferguson as the goofy Gobber and Jonah Hill as Snotlout.
Dragon races have become all the rage five years after the first episode. Hiccup and Toothless go off course during one and discover a secret ice cave that hides the biggest, coldest creature of all.
New characters include Djimon Hounsou as the powerful “Night Fury” Drago and Kit Harington as Eret, his jerky, egotistical son.
The action is continuous. There is a lot of racing around, battling and kidnapping, but more laughs than real violence, and those brightly-colored, doofus dragons are so darn cute. I am allegedly a grownup, but I enjoyed all the childish fun. You will too.


A Romantic Comedy for Literate Adults

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An Intelligent, Adult Romantic Comedy

By Skip Sheffield

“Words and Pictures’ is a romantic comedy for intelligent, thoughtful adults.
Written by Gerald Di Pego (“The Forgotten”) and directed by Fred Schipisi (“Six Degrees of Separation”), “Words and Pictures” is also a philosophical debate on the power of the printed word versus visual art, starring two mature, highly skilled actors.
Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is a writer whose creative inspiration has dried up over the course of teaching Honors English to unresponsive rich kids at a Maine prep school. Jack has sought solace in alcohol in increasing doses, which has only deepened his depression.
Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is a new art teacher at the school. Dina is lovely, determined and a talented artist, but she is increasingly incapacitated by rheumatoid arthritis.
Already in his cups early in the morning, Jack gets into a debate with Dina, who proclaims “words are lies… traps.”
Since Jack’s entire life is based on the printed word, Jack takes Dina’s words as a challenge, and he throws down the gauntlet.
“This is war,” he declares. Jack wants a public contest that will be voted on by the students. He will present his best literary effort and she will paint her finest abstract painting.
In a romantic comedy there is always more. Jack is not the most honest or moral competitor. Dina is being increasingly disabled by her disease. Of course bit by bit these adversaries will fall in love. It sounds cliched, corny and hokey, but it is not totally, thanks to the finely nuanced performances by Clive Owens as a tormented, once-great talent and the radiantly beautiful Juliette Binoche as a gifted artist (Binoche did her own painting onscreen) whose body is failing her. Then there are the students; an odd, interesting lot used mostly as diversions.
“Words and Pictures” is the kind of movie that makes you contemplate your own failings and weaknesses. In that sense it is the opposite of sugary. On the other hand it advances the ever-optimistic- yes sweet- notion that redemption is possible.


Friday, June 6, 2014

A Tear-Jerker of the First Order

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“Fault in Our Stars:” You Will Weep

By Skip Sheffield

Need a good cry? “The Fault in Our Stars” is a sure bet to get the waterworks working.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is the most effective tear-jerker since “Love Story.” Indeed it blows away that sappy 1970 doomed romance.
A young guy named Josh Boone (“Stuck in Love”) directed “Fault” and Scott Neustader adapted John Green’s novel. Neustader previously showed his bittersweet romance chops with “(500) Days of Summer” in 2009 and “Spectacular Now” in 2013.
Not coincidentally, Shailene Woodley starred in “Spectacular Now” and plays the principal role of Hazel Grace Lancaster in “Fault.”
Hazel is only 17 and is a terminal thyroid cancer patient. The cancer has damaged her lungs so badly she has to lug around an oxygen tank for the tubes in her nose that enable her to breathe.
Hazel’s mother Frannie (Laura Dern) frets that Hazel is depressed.
“Depression is not a side effect of cancer,” Hazel says. “It’s a side effect of dying.”
Nevertheless Hazel agrees to go to a cancer support peer group where she meets Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort), a plucky 18-year-old cancer survivor who has lost a leg to the disease. Gus has a good friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) who has lost an eye to cancer and stands to lose his remaining good eye to save his life.
This all may sound rather morbid, but it is not. Hazel, Gus and Isaac are witty, funny characters and they speak words that get directly to the heart of the matter. They also get angry and do foolish juvenile things.
Hazel and Gus are both avid readers, and Hazel turns on Gus to her favorite novel, “An Imperial Affliction,” by a mysterious author named Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Through somewhat miraculous circumstances Gus gets through to Van Houten’s personal assistant Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek), who lives with him in Amsterdam. Taking advantage of a Make-a-Wish grant, Gus books passage for Hazel, her mother and him to Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author and to find out why his book drops off in mid-sentence.
After a magical dinner with Dom Perignon champagne courtesy Peter Van Houten, Hazel and Gus finally met the author. To say he was uncooperative is an understatement. He is an insulting, condescending, surly drunk. So much for an idealized image of a brilliant writer.
What makes “Fault” so effective is that is balances mawkish sentiment with hard slaps of reality. We know the outcome of the story but we are drawn in anyway. Be advised to bring along some tissues. You will need them.
My prediction is that we will be hearing from Shailene Woodley at Oscar nomination time.