Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"The Walk" That Stunned The World


A Thrilling “Walk” of a Lifetime

By Skip Sheffield

Afraid of heights? Better steer clear of “The Walk.” On the other hand if you like dizzying thrills, this reenactment of Phillippe Petit’s amazing 1974 World Trade Center high wire walk offers some bracing good jolts.
The World Trade Center twin towers were destroyed by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. This fact lends a sobering, macabre quality to this fictionalized documentary.
Phillippe Petit is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in what I think is his best performance to date. Gordon-Levitt not only spoke French and English with a French accent, he mastered a very close approximation of walking a tightrope 110 stories in the air. The average person may consider Phillippe Petit a suicidal madman. Thereby lays part of his crazy appeal. Gordon-Levitt captures that craziness in a cheerful, upbeat way. The actor received training from Petit himself.
Director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”) had a hand in writing the screenplay, starting with a brief history of Petit’s career as a street performer in Paris. Along the way he befriended a beautiful French girl, Annie Allix, played by real-life Parisian Charlotte Le Bon. Charlotte also coached Gordon-Levitt is perfecting his French accent.
Conquering the World Trade Center towers took six years of planning and crucial accomplices every step of the way. Spanning the 200 feet between the towers, 1,350 feet or a quarter of a mile above the Earth, was a three-stage process. The first stage was a bow and arrow hooked to monofilament fishing line.

Petit’s stunt, accomplished in the early hours of the morning on Aug. 7, 1974, has been hailed as “The artistic crime of the century.” Although they were required to arrest Petit, the cops of NYPD and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were clearly on the daredevil’s side. In what was a win-win for everyone, Petit’s charges were dismissed in exchange for a free public performance in Central Park. The World Trade Center, unloved by many when it was built, got much-needed positive publicity. Phillippe Petit remained in New York City and was granted a lifetime pass to the observation decks of the World Trade Center. Though it is about a French man, “The Walk” is a movie that makes you proud to be an American.

Friday, September 25, 2015

"The New Girlfriend" is Not What you Think


“The New Girlfriend” Has a Special Secret

By Skip Sheffield

“The New Girlfriend” is one curious little movie by French writer-director Francois Ozon. For one thing the girlfriend is not a girl but a man who enjoys dressing as a woman.
That would be David (Romain Duris), whose alter ego is Virginia. David is the husband of Laura (Islid Le Besco), who is best friends for life with Claire (Anais Demoustier).
Claire is killed off early in the plot, adapted from a novel by Ruth Rendell. David is left with a young daughter Lucie (Brune Kalnykow) he is not sure how to care for.
Claire steps in to help David, and she gets more than she bargained for.  David it seems has been a transvestite all through his marriage. Though David was literally in the closet, with the death of his wife he is free to pursue his predilections, and share them with Claire, who has become his closest friend.
Claire is played by Anais Demoustier, a young (age 28) distinctive-looking woman with big brown eyes and adorable freckles. Claire is originally put off by David’s confession, but in time she learns to appreciate both David and Virginia. This leaves her husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaz) baffled, and suspicious she may be falling for David.
“The New Girlfriend” is billed as a comedy, but it is not laugh-out-loud funny. Romain Duris is an extraordinarily handsome man, with heavy beard and unmistakably masculine, not matter how much makeup or frilly frocks he wears.

The French are much more sophisticated than Americans, or perhaps blasé about matters sexual and gender-based. This movie tweaks our sensibilities and challenges one to accept another person no matter what he or she professes to believe. It's hard to argue with that.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Scary Side of Mountain Climbing Examined in "Meru"


Are Mountain Climbers Crazy?

By Skip Sheffield

Are all mountain climbers crazy? You might think so after seeing “Meru” a documentary film about high-risk, big-wall climbing of the world’s riskiest, tallest mountains.
Meru is located in the Himalayas of northern India, 21,000 feet above the sacred Ganges River. The film is directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarelyi and Jimmy Chin, who was one of the climbers and is the husband of Elizabeth Chai Vasarelyi. The story is in two parts. The first begins in October, 2008. Three of the world’s best climbers: Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin, planned a seven-day expedition to the never-conquered summit of Meru. Things quickly went amiss. Seven days stretched into 20 in sub-zero temperatures with high winds as food supplies dwindled and the men felt the ill effects of exposure. They had to admit defeat and retreated within 100 meters of the summit.

The guys went back to what passes for normal for professional mountain climbers, but they couldn’t resist another shot at Meru, which is referred to as the “Anti-Everest” for its sheer difficulty and elite group of challengers. This is not a happy story. Some are severely injured. Some die. All cheat death on a daily basis. I was given a mountain climbing class the summer I was 13 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. My cousin John Huyler was an avid climber. I did not want to be seen as a coward, but I can admit now I was terrified; especially at the grand finale where we were told to belay off a sheer cliff, held only by a rope, controlled by one’s hand grip. What I did was child’s play compared to what these men went through. Why? I don’t know, but it is a vicarious thrill to watch.

A French Stolen Art Mystery

Anna Sigalevich as Esther the Amateur Sleuth

"Art Dealer" a First-Class Mystery

By Skip Sheffield

“The Art Dealer” plays like a first-class mystery, inspired by real crimes in the wake of World War II in Europe.

Anna Sigalevich (“The Piano Teacher,” “Flight of the Red Balloon”) plays a Polish Jewish woman named Esther who becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her grandmother’s collection of masterpiece paintings. All she has to go on is some mysterious black-and-white 16 mm film footage of her grandmother and grandfather, who was executed by the Nazis, and some purloined old letters by her grandmother. In a script written by French director Francois Margolin, Esther learns there are villains in addition to the Nazis, and a couple may be among her own family and trusted friends. The fact of the matter is that all kinds of treasures were plundered from Jewish families, and getting restitution is no simple task, but efforts must be made..

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Lost Art of Gentlemanly Debate


Harken Back to the Days When Debate was a Gentlemanly Sport

By Skip Sheffield

Remember when it was possible to have a civilized, gentlemanly difference of opinion?
If you do, “Best of Enemies” will have you feeling nostalgic. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Buckley was on the far right. Vidal was proudly left-wing. Both men were from New York, attended posh private schools and affected plummy British accents. In the summer of 1968 they became a national cause celebre when they debated on-camera about the merits and demerits of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. ABC-TV was in dead last in ratings. Thanks to the debates, ABC vaulted to first place.
Of special interest to locals is the fact the Republican Convention was held in Miami Beach. It’s fun watching a young Sam Donaldson reporting from the beach in a rather tongue-in-cheek style. Other era talking heads are Shana Alexander, Dick Cavett, Howard K. Smith, Kirk Kirkpatrick and of course Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, who emerged victor as the Republican presidential candidate.

I was off at college during the 1968 convention, but I was living in Delray Beach and attending FAU as a graduate student in 1972. One of my favorite cousins, John Huyler, showed up at our big old Delray house. He told me he was going to the Republican Convention, again held in Miami Beach, and he was determined to protest the reelection of Richard Nixon. I admired John’s fortitude, and I lent him my motorcycle so he could get around. Sure enough, John Huyler was arrested in a massive over-reaction by Miami Beach Police. John was jailed and my motorcycle was impounded. Eventually someone paid John’s bail, and my motorcycle was returned to him. I was proud to play a part, however small, in the legitimate protest against Nixon, who would finally resign in disgrace in 1974 after the Watergate Scandal broke. The system works, I thought at the time. Now I feel we live in much unkinder, not-nearly gentler times. Perhaps “Best of Enemies” can provide insights to how we got here from there.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A True Philanthropist Named Rosenwald


By Skip Sheffield

Never heard of Julius Rosenwald? Me neither. This is not surprising, because he died in 1932, long before I was born. Thanks to writer director Aviva Kempner (“Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg,” “Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”), Julius Rosenwald is getting his just due as one of America’s greatest philanthropists.
Unlike say Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenberg did not put his name on institutions he made possible. A prime example is Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry, which was called the Rosenwald Museum by those in the know.
Rosenwald’s greatest achievement was in the field of education. He took a special interest in underprivileged minorities, particularly in the rural South. In the course of his lifetime (1862-1932) Rosenwald’s Foundation funded more than 5,000 schools throughout the USA. One of them was right here in Boca Raton. Rosenwald’s challenge grant made possible what became Roadman School in the era of segregation, which did not end until the mid-1960s.
Rosenwald made a fortune as CEO of Sears, Roebuck & Co. His father had been an itinerant peddler, and Julius never forgot his humble roots. Rosenwald likened the poor black families of the South to the Russian Jews who were forever being victimized by pogroms carried out by the ruling Czarists. In the American South it was the fiercely racist Ku Klux Klan, who burned and bombed homes and schools and lynched black people for public display.

Julius Rosenwald idolized Abraham Lincoln, who free the slaves and died for his beliefs. If you need a dose of inspiration, see “Rosenwald” and discover what it means to give to the poor in the biblical sense of the left hand not knowing what the right is giving.

Patricia Clarkson Learns to Drive


Patricia Clarkson’s Star Turn in “Learning to Drive”

By Skip Sheffield

Patricia Clarkson has the role of her lifetime as the lead character in “Learning to Drive.”
Clarkson has spent her career in supporting character roles in movies like “Friends With Benefits” and “Shutter Island.” Now she has her star turn as Wendy, a middle-aged New York intellectual (she reviews books) whose marriage is crumbling- nay doomed.
Is there anything sadder than telling a woman (or a man) you no longer love them? Patricia Clarkson beautifully captures that desolation, but this is more a romantic comedy than a tragedy, thanks to the always-brilliant Ben Kingsley. Kingsley plays a strictly observant Sikh driving instructor named Darwan. This role is like falling off a log for Kingsley, who is of Indian heritage. He nails the accent and mannerisms perfectly, but more important he stresses the dignity of a character who could easily have been a caricature.
While Wendy is losing her faithless husband to some younger chippie, Darwan is gaining a wife he never met through an arranged marriage. Grace Gummer plays Wendy’s prickly daughter, Tasha.

“Learning to Drive” is written by a woman: Sarah Kernochan (“9 and 1/2 Weeks,”” “What Lies Beneath”), and directed by a woman; Spanish director Isabel Coixet, but it is not down on men in general. It is a well-balanced, very adult romantic comedy with an upbeat final message that life goes on.

A Pre-Mickey Mouse Walt Disney


“Walt Before Mickey” Explores the Man

By Skip Sheffield

Ever wonder what Walt Disney did before Mickey Mouse shot him to international fame in 1928 with “Steamboat Willie?”
Wonder no more. Disney’s lean early years are dramatized in “Walt Before Mickey,” a bio pic by Arthur L. Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez.
The short answer is struggle. Walt Disney was no overnight success.
“My father thought I was the black sheep of the family,” Walt confessed at the story’s beginning in 1919. He is played by Thomas Ian Nicholas, who may be familiar from ”American Pie” and its sequel.
Walt was already in love with movies, though his ambition was to be an artist. It took him ten years of attempts and setbacks, but he was finally able to realize both dreams together.
“Walt Before Mickey” is done as a straight biography by Khoa Le, who directed the “American Pie” movies. The movie was shot in Florida in Sanford and Deland. The script is by Armando Gutierrez from Miami and Arthur L. Bernstein from Palm Beach. Walt’s brother Roy is played by Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”). One thing I learned from this movie was the importance of Roy Disney to the success of Walt Disney Productions. He in essence was the business side of the enterprise. Walt was the creative dreamer. I met Roy Disney years ago at the Cartoon Museum in Boca Raton. He was a very modest, quiet man, and Heder nails him pretty well. Ub Iwerks, the little-heralded original partner of Disney, is played by Armando Gutierrez.
If you don’t care much about Walt Disney the man, this film will not interest you. I’ve read about the dark side of Walt Disney many times, but you won’t find that here. He comes across as a sunny, all-American hero.