Thursday, December 31, 2015

Steve Jobs: Visionary Jerk


“Steve Jobs” a Brilliant Mind But a Deficient Human Being

By Skip Sheffield

Steve Jobs may have had a brilliant mind, but as a human being he was pitiful.
This paradox is driven home time and again in “Steve Jobs,” a documentary film by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”). The script is by Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “Moneyball”) based on a book by official biographer Walter Isaacson, who previously did a biography on Henry Kissinger.
“Steve Jobs” begins with a flashback video of writer/scientist Arthur C. Clarke, speaking of a computer future. I’ll bet even Clarke did not realize the extent computers would take over every aspect of our lives.
The action proper begins in 1984 in Cupertino, California, headquarters of Apple. Jobs (Michael Fassbinder) is preparing to introduce the revolutionary iMac to the public. A perfectionist and obsessive-compulsive, Jobs wants every minute detail perfect. There are glitches.
“We can’t run the intro,” a techie wails. “We need the tools. It’s a closed system.”
A closed system is something completely incompatible with any other system, such as the vastly more popular Microsoft Word. But the graphic capabilities and quality of the Mac are dazzling, and particularly attractive to high-level designers.
Trying to keep Jobs cool is his long-suffering assistant (and perhaps more), Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, almost unrecognizable in dark hair dye). Joanna best knows how to deal with Jobs’ wild mood swings, his irrational demands and his demeaning insults.
Helping Jobs create the nuts and bolts of the Mac was his Apple co-founder Steve Woznik (Seth Rogan). Overlooking the entire project was John Scully (Jeff Daniels), a former PepsiCo executive.
A solid, practical business model was never Jobs’ strong suit. In addition to being a unique product, the Mac was much more expensive than any other computer. With 35,000 units sold instead of the 1 million projected and two factories closed down, Jobs was fired from his own company in 1985.
There is family drama too, with a girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) whom he never married and who bore him a daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) Jobs denied fathering. No, he was not such a nice guy.

Ultimately Scully was removed as CEO and Jobs returned to Apple and made the products even better; with the PC, Pixar Animation, iPhones, tablet computing and digital publishing to his credit. What is left out of this story is Jobs’ humbling by his own mortality when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died Oct. 5, 2011 at age 56, but not before making a kind of deathbed confession of his regrets. You can look it up. It is very moving.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A "Trumbo" for Our Time

Right-Wingers Sabotage Left-Wingers, Sound Familiar?

By Skip Sheffield

The black-listing of brilliant, award-winning, leftist  screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for his political views by the House Un-American Activities Committee happened while I was still in diapers. All I knew about it was what I read in history books. With “Trumbo” it is gratifying to get a fuller picture of this scary time in American history when citizens were penalized for no crime other than their unpopular political views.
Bryan Cranston gives one of the best performances of 2015 as embattled but indomitable Dalton Trumbo in the movie titled simply “Trumbo.” Under the direction of Jay Roach (silly comedies “Meet the Parents,” “Austin Powers”), John McNamara’s screenplay does not hew too closely to facts, but it gets the main truths right. Trumbo and nine of his Hollywood screenwriter comrades were in 1947 called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) to state whether they now, or ever had been a member of the Communist Party. HCUA was a pet project of ambitious right-wing Sen. Joe McCarthy, who is not a character in this story. In his place is the vicious and equally ambitious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with fiendishly wicked glee by Helen Mirren. In her corner is actor John Wayne (David James Elliott), who had become a super-patriot although he never served in any service.
Trumbo’s ever-loyal wife Cleo is played by a serene Diane Lane. Her serenity and loyalty is tested to its limit when Trumbo and his fellow members of the “Hollywood 10” were convicted of contempt of court for refusing to answer. Trumbo served prison time and he and the rest of the Hollywood 10 could no longer work at their trade.
Trumbo’s solution was to keep writing at a fraction of what he had been earning, assigning the credits to fictitious authors. Most of the scripts he sold to unscrupulous, pugnacious small studio owner Frank King (John Goodman), who didn’t care where a script came from as long as it sold tickets.
Living under greatly reduced circumstances, Trumbo kept churning out scripts, sitting in a bathtub and chain-smoking the cigarettes that would eventually give him lung cancer and kill him as they did his best friend Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) before him.
Happily two men came along to help Trumbo break the black list. Actor Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) hired him to write the screenplay for “Spartacus.” Producer Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) really broke the ban when he asked Trumbo to write the screenplay for “Exodus” and insisted his name be listed on the credits.

Trumbo received belated recognition and even Oscars such as 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” for which he never received credit at the time. Best-known as Walter White the unhinged meth-maker of “Breaking Bad,” Cranston shows an amazing versatility in his portrayal of a defiant man who refused to be broken.

A Dire Warning From Will Smith in "Concussion"


Will Smith Fires Dire Warning in “Concussion”

By Skip Sheffield

Confession, I never much liked football, and it’s not because I could never make the team or even play the game.
This puts me squarely on the side of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the hero of “Concussion.” Dr. Omalu is played by Will Smith in a strictly dramatic role. At first I didn’t quite recognize Will, his makeup and thick Nigerian accent seemed so authentic.
Dr. Omalu earned his medical degree in Nigeria, then earned a string of advanced degrees after coming to England and the USA. To say he was an over-achiever would be understating it. The story, based on the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskes and adapted to the screen by director Peter Landesman (“Kill the Messenger,” “Parkland”), begins in 2002. The supremely over-qualified Dr. Omalu has taken a job as a pathologist in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. Dr. Omalu has highly unconventional autopsy techniques. For one thing he talks to the corpses. For another he is very slow and methodical. This drives the office supervisor, Dan Sullivan (Mike O’Malley) crazy, but Dr. Omalu has a staunch defender in his supervisor, Dr. Joseph Maroon (Arliss Howard) and the big boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks).
Pittsburgh is a football-crazy town that loves its home team, The Steelers. The movie begins with action shots and a farewell speech by its star center, Mike Webster (David Morse). Flash forward a few years and Webster is a homeless derelict, living in an SUV. One of his former teammates comes to check up on him, and Webster shoos him away. A few days later Webster is dead, and his body ends up in Dr. Omalu’s morgue.
Against the wishes of Dan Sullivan, Dr. Omalu performs an autopsy. He goes one further by asking to dissect the brain. Under protest the doctor is allowed to extract brain tissue samples, but any further testing must be paid for by him.
Just as Dr. Omalu suspected from research conducted in England, Mike Webster suffered from brain abnormalities and subsequent behavior abnormalities from brain trauma. The abnormalities can only be confirmed after the victim has died and his brain dissected.
It is one obstacle after another for Dr. Omalu, who gains a helpmate in fellow African immigrant, Prema Mutiso (beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who eventually becomes his wife.
The big fight begins when Dr. Omalu gains enough evidence to publish a paper on the syndrome called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). He gains a persuasive ally in Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former NFL head physician who now believes his powerful employers are covering up reckless human suffering for profit.
“Concussion” is a long and complex story. There are no clear-cut winners. Football is America’s favorite sport. NFL players filed a class-action suit in 2011 and got a settlement. There is no way of making the game of tackle football “safe.” At least this film will make some people aware of the consequences of its excesses.

As for Will Smith, his brilliant, impassioned performance a Dr. Omalu is a career high point. One hopes he is no lost in a crowded field for Best Actor nominations.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A "Spotlight" on Unpleasant Truths


Sometimes the Truth Hurts

By Skip Sheffield

“Spotlight” is a movie aimed right at the likes of me, who has spent a lifetime in journalism. Based on actual events, “Spotlight” even has a main character I knew casually when he was an editor at the Miami Herald.
Marty Baron was a hotshot editor at the Miami Herald when he was hired away by the Boston Globe in 2001 to be managing editor (Since Dec. 2012 he was been executive editor of the Washington Post). Not only had Baron pursued aggressive journalism, he had cut 15 percent of the Herald staff and reduced costs. This is music to the ears of the corporate owners of newspapers, which were then riding high.
When there is a new Sheriff in town, everybody is nervous. Baron’s abrasive, aggressive reputation preceded him, and he was further an outsider because he was Jewish in an overwhelmingly Catholic city. He didn’t even like baseball. Baron is played by Liev Schreiber, who is skilled at playing feisty, Type-A characters. His introduction shakes up the status quo of Spotlight managing editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) who is a Boston native and loyal to his town and to his church. Robby heads the elite four-member “Spotlight” investigative reporting team.
“I think we can do better,” Baron says ominously.
Specifically he notices there have been stories about molestation of children by Catholic priests that have been either ignored or buried in the back pages of the paper. Campaigning for a larger investigation of the accusations is star reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). With Baron as boss the investigation can move forward with meticulous research by reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian James d’Arcy) and ultimately the entire Globe staff.
Mike Rezendes is certain eight cases have been covered up. As it turns out there is a far greater conspiracy, or “gentlemen’s agreement” amongst the church, police, lawyers and the paper than anyone could have imagined. With the endorsement of publisher Ben Bradley (John Slattery), and the help of insider lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the Globe will ultimately win the Pulitzer Prize for reporting and the Cardinal of Boston diocese will step down.

It is hard to make investigative reporting exciting. Most of it is done in libraries, newspaper clipping morgues, police stations and houses of ordinary people. McCarthy and his crack cast keep it interesting and yes, even exciting. As with “The Big Short” there is an unpleasant aftertaste with the victory. These institutions we trusted lied to us. With newspapers waning in power and influence, one wonders who will stick their neck out to get at the truth? “Spotlight” is a timely reminder of the importance- make that the necessity- of a free press in a democratic society.

Women in Love


“Carol” in Love

By Skip Sheffield

“The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name” is sensitively and sympathetically depicted in “Carol,” a film directed by Todd Haynes, based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith.
The novel was published in 1952 under a pseudonym; due to its taboo subject matter: two women in love.
Those women are elegant Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett and pixiish Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara. The setting is New York City. Therese is a department store salesgirl. She is wearing a mandated Santa cap for the Christmas season, and she instantly catches the eye of Carol, an older, well-off woman who feigns interest in buying a doll for her daughter just to meet and talk to Therese.
“Carol” is one of those movies with bookends. The first scene is really the last scene. It only makes sense when you have experienced the dramatic romantic adventure of Carol and Therese.
This isn’t the first time Carol has been attracted to another woman, despite being married to John Aird (Michael Haney), and having two daughters with him.
In either a subconscious or deliberate act, Carol leaves her gloves behind at the sales counter. Therese dutifully tracks her down to her house. Sparks are already flying, and although Therese has an adoring boyfriend who works at the New York Times and can help her with a career as a photographer there, she accepts a lunch invitation from Carol. Over martinis and cigarettes Carol explains that “technically she is divorced.” She boldly invites Therese to visit her at her house that Sunday.
Carol’s husband is no fool. Instinctively he knows something is afoot when he sees the attractive young woman and his wife’s adoring glances. In a daring move, Carol and Therese take off on a road trip to no particular destination. There love is consummated in a motel room, but it is staged so artfully and subtly it does not qualify even for soft porn.
Romantic love is tumultuous, regardless of your partner. Carol and Therese will find no easy path.

We have come a long way since 1952, when Patricia Highsmith felt she couldn’t put her real name on her lesbian love novel. We come even farther since 1895, when Oscar Wilde was tried and imprisoned for indecent behavior in a London trial where Lord Alfred Douglas’s poem that spoke of “The Love that dare not speak its name” was cited. Wilde was convicted, spent two years in prison, three years in exile and died at age 45 in Paris.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Hateful It Is


Yes, “The Hateful Eight” Is

By Skip Sheffield

You can’t accuse Quentin Tarantino of false advertising. “The Hateful Eight” is about as hateful a movie as you are likely to see this or any year. Set a few years after the War Between the States in the wilderness of Wyoming, this neo-Western, written and directed by Tarantino, is more than three hours of violence, cruelty and nastiness. There is not a single admirable character in it. This makes it really hard to “like” this movie; yet there is a strange, desolate beauty and artfully-executed choreography to it.
The movie begins rather pretentiously with an announced Overture by prolific “Spaghetti Western’ composer Ennio Morricone and the fact it is the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino. It is divided into six chapters with titles. The camera pans in on a snow-covered full-size stone crucifix with a silent, snow-covered Jesus. I suppose this is to contrast with the noisy, profane, devilish action to follow. A stagecoach is struggling through the nearly whiteout snow. It carries one John Ruth (Kurt Russell, channeling John Wayne), a bounty-hunter, and his captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee). Jennifer has been uglied up for the part of this female desperado (she sports bruises, cuts and a black eye) and will be further abused in the course of the journey. John Ruth is no gentleman. He is a sadistic opportunist known as “The Hangman,” and that is just what he intends to do to Daisy, once they reach their destination of Red Rock.
Along the road two strangers are introduced. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Southern renegade, claims he is to be appointed the new Sheriff of Red Rock. An African-American man flags down the stage and begs a ride, since a blizzard is fast approaching. The man is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Union veteran of the Civil War who served in the Negro troops. Maj. Warren carries a letter he claims was written to him personally by President Abraham Lincoln. He is also a bounty hunter.
As the storm worsens the driver decides to stop and wait it out at Minnie’s Haberdashery. Minnie is not there, but some guy named Bob (Demian Bichir) says he is watching the place while Minnie visits her sick mom. Holed up at the haberdashery is Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the hangman of Red Rock; a cowboy named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and an old Confederate general, Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). As the storm worsens, yet another character is introduced; a younger man named Jody (Channing Tatum). It seems that in addition to being low-lifes, most of the characters are liars. When true identities are revealed, all Hell, to put it mildly, breaks loose.

I know it’s only a movie. The blood is fake Karo syrup. The wounds are makeup effects. The bullets aren’t real. Just the same I felt queasy after the incredibly violent, bloody “Last Chapter.” Let’s just say this is not a good date movie. 

A Bitter "Big Short"


Boo Banks! A Bitter Pill and a Bitter Movie

By Skip Sheffield

Hate banks? Me too. So apparently do a number of A-list Hollywood stars.
Inspired by actual events, “The Big Short” is about a small group of smart young financial analysts who predicted the real estate meltdown of 2008 and benefitted by it. It is an angry picture; a first drama directed by Adam McKay, who teamed with Will Ferrell to produce the silly comedies “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman.” The script is by true story specialist Michael Lewis (“Moneyball,” “The Blind Side”), who adapted his book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.”
Christian Bale plays the ringleader of the prognosticators, Dr. Michael Burry, a neurosurgeon-turned hedge fund manager. What Dr. Burry lacks in social graces he makes up with sheer intelligence. He has studied thousands of mortgages and has concluded most will default within a few years when variable-rate interest kicks in.
When Mark Baum (Steve Carell in a bad toupee) hears Dr. Burry’s theory, he is on board. Baum is an in-your-face pushy alpha-male. Marisa Tomei is his subordinate wife Cynthia.
Baum’s cohorts include Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). With the help of retired bank insider Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), the quartet is buying up bonds they know are “junk,” and they will sell them just before they surely default; in essence betting on their failure. In the course of their research, the men discover that banks have not only been making risky loans to under-financed people, they are engaging in practices that are actually illegal.
Florida is specifically cited as a state where outrageously risky home loans have been approved. Hastily-constructed vacant tract homes are listed as worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with those empty houses as collateral.

Tension builds as the traders bet ever more on disaster, betting against higher-ranked bonds. These guys are not heroes. They are driven by greed, but they are appalled by the immorality and illegality of major financial institutions. You will appalled too, and angry that somehow banks wrangled a bailout by taxpayers. That’s you and me. While I never defaulted on my mortgage, I did see the value of my house cut in half by the time I was forced to sell it. It was a bitter pill and this is a bitter movie.

She's Not Danish Nor a Girl, But She is a Heartbreaker


“The Danish Girl” a Weeper of the First Order

By Skip Sheffield

Have you had a good cry lately? If not “The Danish Girl” should do the trick.
British actor Eddie Redmayne is the “girl” in question. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays his wife.
After stunning as a robot girl in “Ex Machina,” Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is even more moving as the world’s most understanding wife in “The Danish Girl.”
I can only imagine how difficult it is for a woman to accept her husband’s proclamation of love for other men, rather than her. Imagination is stretched further when the man in question decides he wants to be female.
That is the scenario of “The Danish Girl,” which is based on a real-life incident. The director is Tom Hooper, who won an Academy Award for the brilliant “The King’s Speech.” I think he may have topped himself with his version of the 2000 David Ebershoff novel.
“Danish Girl” is inspired by the true life of Lili Elbe, who began life as Einar Wegener and became one of the world’s first transgender candidates. His/her life was chronicled in the book “Man Into Woman,” published in 1933.
Einar Wegener was a painter, married to Gerda, also a painter, played by the extraordinary Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. In the course of his transition, Einar/Lili began wearing women’s clothes, and affecting female mannerisms. His wife Gerda was by his side through all of his transition, up to his major surgery to change from male to female.
Many people will be put off by this entire idea, but Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili with such compassion and conviction it is hard not to be moved, regardless of one’s sexual orientation.

“The Danish Girl” is not a happy ending story. The whole concept of changing one’s gender identity is alien to me, yet I found myself profoundly moved by this film. In real life I have known men who yearned to be women, and went to extraordinary measures to accomplish that goal. This movie is a big advance for the transgender community. I am not a part of that, but I feel I understand it a little better now.

Friday, December 18, 2015

"Star Wars" for a New Generation


Re-Visiting a Galaxy Far, Far Away

By Skip Sheffield

There are many things in life I do not understand. The “Star Wars” phenomenon is one of them.
If ever there were a critic-proof movie, it’s “Star Wars.” The franchise is now owned by Disney, which acquired LucasFilms in 2012. They don’t make it easy for critics. They know they have sure-fire audience bait.
The good news about the reboot “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is that it is pretty good, even for a skeptic like me. It is the best installment since the first three, starting in 1977 with “Star Wars,” which was then retitled Episode IV. After Episode VI it was all downhill with a series of pretentious, silly “prequels.”
“The Force Awakens” brings in J.J. Abrams (“Mission Impossible III”) as director. Its principal writer, working with characters created by George Lucas, is Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote “Raiders of the Lost Ark;” “Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back” and “Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi.”
Fans of the original Star Wars will be pleased that original stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill all reprise their characters of Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker. Chewbacca is back too as are the droids CP-3 CO and R2 D2.
Luke Skywalker has disappeared in this reboot, and the two new characters spend most of the film looking for him while combatting a new villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
The new good girl and good guy are British actors Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn). They are both young and fresh and they bode well for this continuation of this reboot. It’s already a done deal, as two more episodes are in the works.
There is no point in retelling the plot. Simply put, Kylo Ren, who dresses in black and runs an evil organization called The First Order, is a reinvention of Darth Vader. First Order is clearly a fascist organization modelled after Hitler’s Nazi Party. Boo, hiss!

There are a number of references to the original Star Wars movies; most notably the bar scene with all sorts of weird alien characters mingling with humans. Even the intro is the same: “A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far away,” with the portentous John Williams score. There is one major plot twist, but we won’t spill the beans just yet. Star Wars fans should be pleased by the movie but saddened by the twist. For the rest of us “Force Awakens” is tolerable and pretty entertaining, and that should be enough to make this movie a big box office success.

A Couple Down-and-Dirty "Sisters"


Raunchy Females on the Loose in Orlando

By Skip Sheffield

Funny. In a world that’s what “Sisters” is. In two words: very funny.
“Sisters” is a female-centric comedy by Saturday Night Live and “The Awesomes” writer Paula Pell, directed by Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”). It is set in Orlando, which is kind of a joke already. It stars Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler, who are two of the funniest women in show business. Whoever said women cannot be as funny as men has never met Tina and Amy.
Fey plays misfit older sister Kate Ellis and Poehler is younger, more successful and proper Maura Ellis. Kate has just lost yet another job working as a manicurist. Maura is always at the ready with financial assistance, but Kate is too proud to admit her true state. When they learn their parents (perfectly-cast James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have decided to downsize to a condo and sell the house the sisters grew up in, the sisters at first are outraged. Then they get the ill-conceived idea of having a last blowout party in the almost empty house. They call it “Ellis Island Revamped.”
Kate Ellis agrees to behave herself and stay sober. Maura has her cap set for James (Ike Barinholtz), a somewhat shy neighbor who remodels houses. Not unsurprisingly things quickly get out of hand, especially when the Ellis girls’ old high school nemesis Brenda shows up. Maya Rudolph steals every scene she’s in as the uninvited guest from Hell.
In this colorful cast of characters are the high school slacker jerk classmate, Dave (John Leguizamo); the obligatory nutty fat guy Alex (Bobby Moynihan); Rachel Dratch recreating her Debbie Downer character; a cute Korean girl with a specific way of pronouncing her name, Hae-Won (Greta Lee) and the hulking tattooed calm at the center of the storm, Pazuzu (John Cena).

“Sisters’ is short on moral lessons or meaningful content. In fact it is blushingly raunchy with body-part and sex jokes that could only be delivered by a woman without immediate arrest by the PC Police. This is what could be called an ideal girls-night-out comedy, but this guy got a kick out of it too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Twisting the Night Away at Wick Theatre


Dancing for Christmas at Wick Theatre

By Skip Sheffield

Have Yourself a Merry Little “Twist-Mas.”
The holiday show, playing through Dec. 27 at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, has very little to do with Christmas. It is very merry however, and it is a good mood-lifter.
“Ballroom with a Twist-Mas” is the first Wick Theatre show not produced in-house. Los Angeles Producer Scott Stander is a Boca Raton native however, who got his start in show biz as Jan McArt’s assistant at Royal Palm Dinner Theatre. “Twist-Mas” features a cast of performers from “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol.”
Lacey Schwimmer and Jonathan Roberts were hosts for our opening night. Both are veterans of “Dancing With The Stars,’ as is most of the rotating cast.
The dancing, directed and choreographed by Jaymz Tuaileva, is nothing short of spectacular. The real show-stopper is “American Idol” finalist Vonzell Solomon. That girl, aka Baby V,  has some fine pipes.
“Twist-Mas” features a live onstage band, with players who double as singers. My favorite is Chantil Dukart, who spent most of her time wearing headphones, hunched over her keyboards. But when she took off the headphones and hit center stage, that girl was on.
While “Twist-Mas” features favorite Christmas themed-songs both sacred (“Silent Night”) and secular (“Jingle Bells Rock”), the main attraction is the dancing, executed by first-class professionals. You even get a question-and-answer session with the headliners.
It’s been a longtime since I took ballroom dancing lessons from the late Miss Betty D’Avray. While the illusion is to look effortless, ballroom dance is deceptively difficult and a lot of work. If you can appreciate that, you will love this show. I know I did.
Tickets are $85 and $95. Call 561-955-2333 or go to

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Moby-Dick:" The Back Story


Chris Hemsworth Before and After

“Moby-Dick” The Rest of the Story

By Skip Sheffield

Before “Moby-Dick” there was a real giant white whale that menaced and wrecked an American whaling ship.
“In The Heart of the Sea” is the back story of Herman Melville’s epic whaling novel. Ron Howard directs the sprawling adventure, written by Charles Levitt (“Blood Diamond”) and based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s historical book “In the Heart of the Ocean: The tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.”
The story begins in 1850 with a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) trying to convince a reluctant Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to be interviewed as research for a novel based on the Essex disaster of 1820, thousands of miles off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean. Nickerson, who was just a cabin boy on the Essex, is the last living survivor. His wife (Michelle Fairley) gently but firmly convinces her husband to collect money Melville offered and tell his horrific tale.
In this telling, the mission was flawed from the beginning. Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) had been promised the post of Captain of the Essex, bound from Nantucket, Mass. Instead the post was given to the callow, inexperienced George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), whose father was an investor in the whaling company. Chase grudgingly accepted the second-in-command rank of First Mate.
Pollard had come from a long line of Nantucket whalers. Owen Chase was the son of a farmer and was looked down upon as a landlubber. In reality Chase was a far superior sailor than Pollard, whose bad choices led to the destruction of the Essex, marooning its survivors in three lifeboats more than 1,000 miles from any land.
Men will do desperate, terrible things to survive. No wonder Nickerson did not want to talk. He was ashamed.
The Melville novel is more about the madness of Captain Ahab than of his unfortunate crew. As a lover of the original novel and the classic 1956 John Houston movie that followed, I found “Heart of the Sea” fascinating. The computer-generated special effects are sometimes fakey, but the acting is true, led by stalwart Chris Hemsworth, who lost 33 pounds in four weeks to depict his gaunt survivor. As for Melville, who idolized "Scarlett Letter" author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne himself complimented Melville for creating “the great American epic.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Put on Your Kiny Boots and Dance


Kicking It Up Kinky in Miami

By Skip Sheffield

If you can’t wait for the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots” to come to Broward Center in March, you can experience it right now through this Sunday, Dec. 13 at Arsht Center in Miami.
We journeyed to downtown Miami on opening night Dec. 8. It was totally worth it.
“Kinky Boots” is an expansion and enhancement of the 2005 British film comedy.  The script is by clever, outspoken Harvey Fierstein with a peppy original score by "She's So Unusual" pop star Cyndi Lauper. The original story was inspired by a real event in northern England. An old-fashioned shoe factory began manufacturing men’s fetish footwear in order to survive.
In the play the shoe company is called Price & Son, established in 1890 in Northampton, England. When Mr. Price (Tom Southrada) dies suddenly and unexpectedly, his inexperienced son Charlie (Adam Kaplan) inherits the business. Charlie is engaged to be married to the pushy, ambitious Nicola (Charissa Hogeland), who wants no part of the shoe business. Nicola thinks Charlie should sell the business and allow the building to be converted into a condo. When Charlie learns the business is badly in the red, he is tempted by Nicola’s suggestion.
Enter Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), a flamboyant local drag queen star. When Lola complains bitterly about the flimsy women’s shoes he and his fellow drag queens struggle with, Charlie gets an idea. Why not design a dancer’s boot large enough to fit a man and strong enough to support his weight?
Harrison Ghee is slim and very tall. He looks the part of Simon, a former boxer. He also knows his way around ladies’ frocks and makeup. So do his supporting “Angels,” who are so pretty and graceful it is hard to believe they are not girls. Above all they are excellent dancers, under the athletic choreography of director Jerry Mitchell, recreating his Broadway work.
When Charlie makes the decision to design outlandish “kinky boots,” he reasons the best platform to introduce them is at a prestigious runway shoe fashion show in Milan, Italy. There are a couple of obstacles. Nicola issues an ultimatum that Charlie cannot agree to. Lola gets his feelings hurt and pulls out of the show at the last minute.
Of course this is feel-good musical theater in the tradition of “La Cage aux Folles” and “Hairspray.” Charlie will find a more appropriate love in loyal employee Lauren (Tiffany Engen), The male employees, led by strapping George (Jim J. Bullock), will overcome their prejudices and Lola will recover his senses in time for the spectacular curtain number, “Raise You Up/Just Be.” You may well want to get up and dance along.
Tickets are $29 and up. Call 877-949-6722 or 305-949-6722.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Valentine to Teachers Everywhere


Have You Ever Hugged Your Favorite Teacher?

By Skip Sheffield

“Take it, feel it, pass it on,” was the motto of Mr. Hector, a much-loved teacher at a boy’s private school in northern England, 1986.
Mr. Hector, played by Colin McPhillamy, is the central character of “The History Boys,” an award-winning play by Alan Bennett, running through Jan. 3 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
While “History Boys” is set in a specific time and place, its thoughts on education and the art and science of teaching are universal.
Mr. Hector is nearing the end of his career and retirement ate age 60, and set in his eccentric ways. The school’s headmaster (Rob Donohoe) is concerned that the school is lagging behind in candidates for prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. The boys in Mr. Hector’s class are preparing themselves to take those all-important tests.
To shake things up, the Headmaster brings in a younger teacher, Irwin. (Cliff Burgess). Irwin is a radical, contrary hotshot who presents opposing views of history. In the middle ground is Mrs. Lintott (Angie Radosh) a longtime teacher and simmering feminist.
Dakin (Nathan Stark) is the smartest kid in class and everyone knows it. He is the teacher’s pet and even rides on the back of Mr. Hector’s motorcycle.
The rest of the class is representative of common types. Crowther (Jelanni Alladin) is the bright token black guy. Akthar (Colin Acercion) is quiet and studious. Lockwood (Kristian Bikic) stands out with his bright red sneakers. Everyone else wears black tie-ups.
Rudge (Mike Magliocca) is a jock and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Timms (Matthew Minor) is the pudgy guy and Posner (John Evans Reese) is the overtly gay guy. Scripps (Kyle Branzel) does double duty as pianist, accompanying and singing along with the other boys.
“History Boys” is a nearly perfect ensemble on an amazing, ever-changing, interlocking set by Victor Becker, with components deftly moved by the actors themselves.
We’ll give no spoilers here, but something bad happens in Act Two that changes the lives of Mr. Hector and Irwin and profoundly affects all the boys.
“History Boys” is a moving, provocative work that might get you thinking which teachers most affected your life. I know it did me.
Tickets are $64. Call 561-514-4042 or go to

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Dancing Up a Holiday Storm at Wick Theatre

Lacey Schwimmer

Ballroom With a Twist-Mas

By Skip Sheffield
Dance for joy this Christmas season Dec. 10-27 when the Wick Theatre, 9701 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, presents the big dance and music variety show, “Ballroom with a Twist-Mas” featuring stars from “Dancing With the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “American Idol.”
Revolving headliners are Tristan MacManus, Lacey Schwimmer, Chelsie Hightower, Gleb Savchenko and Jonathan Roberts. One of the brightest of these stars is Lacey Schwimmer, who is not only a lifelong pro dancer but also a choreographer, teacher and costume designer.
“Designing clothes is just another outlet for me,” said Schwimmer from Las Vegas. “I started designing for a small company in the Midwest, then I got picked up by Discount Dance Supply as their first guest artist. Now I am in the process of forming my own company; something that is 100 percent mine. We hope to be ready in mid-2016.”
Lacey Schwimmer was a finalist on “So You Think You Can Dance.” She was on six consecutive seasons of “Dancing With The Stars” and is a co-owner with her family of The 9,000 square-foot Schwimmer Dance Studio, a competitive dance studio in Redlands, California. Most recently she was co-host of “Dancing With The Stars All Access.” She holds multiple U.S. and World titles for Swing Dance and International Latin. She says the touring show, directed and choreographed by Jaymz Tuaileva, has a little something for everyone.
“The show is primarily dancing with some narration, but it is more about the talent,” she says. “It is Christmas-themed with a really good variety of entertainment. The cast is exceptionally talented. I am proud to be part of it.”
Headliners are Lacey Schwimmer and Jonathan Roberts Dec. 10-13; Chelsie Hightower and Jonathan Roberts Dec. 16-20, and Elena Samodanova, Tristan MacManus and Gleb Savchenko Dec. 23-27. There are more than a dozen supporting performers. Evening shows are 7:30 p.m. and matinees are 2 p.m. Tickets are $85 and $95. Call 561-995-2333 or go to

Boca Symphonia Kicks Off 10th Season

Alastair Willis

A Triumphant Tenth Season for Symphonia Boca Raton

By Skip Sheffield

In today’s fast-paced, high-speed, 24/7 whirlwind we call life, sometimes we just need to slow down and smell the flowers. Or, in some cases, sit back and listen to the music. As South Floridians, how lucky are we to have our very own world-class chamber orchestra right here, ready to please our auditory senses.

The SYMPHONIA|Boca Raton, celebrating its 10th season, is masterful at providing an artistic blend of orchestral music, from classical legends to today’s celebrated composers. And, thanks to loyal support from classical music lovers, The SYMPHONIA  stands to be around at least another ten years.
To kick off this year’s popular Connoisseur Concert Series on Sunday, December 6, The SYMPHONIA will present “Gypsy Airs,” a trio of symphonic works featuring Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, Beethoven’s Symphony #7, and renowned violin soloist, Charles Wetherbee, performs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5.   Grammy-nominated maestro Alastair Willis will serve as Guest Conductor.
The December Connoisseur Weekend begins with an 11:30 Friday Dec. 4 Box lunch with the Symphonia at the Unitarian Congregation, 2601 St. Andrews Blvd. This event offers music lovers a sample of The Symphonia’s rehearsal, along with conversations with the musicians and guest artists. Grammy nominated Alastair Willis, currently Music Director of the Illinois Symphony, with varied experience as guest conductor, will speak about the “Gypsy Airs” program. The box lunch cost is $35, or all four box lunches are $100.
Saturday, Dec. 5 is a special day for children and their families, with an opportunity to interact with the conductor and musicians starting at 10:30 a.m. in the intimate, acoustically excellent Roberts Theatre of St. Andrew’s School, 3900 Jog Road. Admission is free for children and just $5 for adults.
The main event is the 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6 Connoisseur Concert at Roberts Theatre. The soloist is violinist Charles Weatherbee of the University of Colorado, Boulder and first violin of the Carpe Diem String Quartet. He will be featured on Mozart’s Violin Concert No. 5, A major. Beethoven’ Symphony No. 7, A major, op. 92 will be played. Mozart’s Violin Concerto should be familiar to most. Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly is less familiar, but he is a major name in classical music, having devised his own method of education. His “Dances of Galanta” will be performed.
Subsequent Connoisseur Concerts will be presented Jan. 8-10 with conductor and soloist David Kim, violin for a program of Bach, Pachebel and Piazzola. The Feb. 5-7 Connoisseur weekend features guest conductor Carolyn Kuan and piano soloist Alexandre Moutouzkine performing Copland, Poulenc, Faure and the ever-popular Mozart. Finally March 18-20 welcomes returning guest conductor Gerard Schwartz and renowned piano soloist Misha Dichter performing Beethoven, Ives and Mendelssohn.

And for the second year, The SYMPHONIA | Boca Raton will offer two ENCORE performances at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens. The first, on January 9, will feature Conductor David Kim and “The Four Seasons” program; and the second, on March 22, will be “A Tribute to the Masters,” with Conductor Gerard Schwarz and world-renowned pianist, Misha Dicter as soloist.
Season subscriptions range from $150 to $250. Single tickets are $45-$75. Call 866-687-1201 or go to
The SYMPHONIA was founded in 2004 on a sound business model by Marshall Turkin and Martin B. Coyne; both music professionals, with FPO principal trumpet Jeffrey Kaye as manager (and now artistic director). They enlisted the help of generous philanthropists Edith and Martin Stein for seed money and continuing support. The result is an orchestra that, in addition to its four Connoisseur Concert Season, performs in Palm Beach Gardens, accompanies the Master Chorale of South Florida, and performs community concerts sponsored by the City of Boca Raton. An outreach program provides education for young people.

Charles Weatherbee