Friday, May 26, 2017

Is Chuck Wepner the Real Rocky Balboa?

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Is “Chuck” Rocky Balboa?

By Skip Sheffield

My late friend, mentor and surrogate father figure Hal Williams used to say “I abhor fisticuffs.”
I do too, which explains why I don’t like boxing and I was a little leery about seeing “Chuck.” The Chuck of the title is Chuck Wepner, the self-styled boxing champion of New Jersey. Chuck is played by Liev Schreiber, an actor I greatly respect. Schreiber must have packed on some pounds and got into combat shape to portray the man whose biggest claim to fame was going 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali.
“I can take a punch,” boasted Wepner, who was also known as “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner was a semi-celebrity in New Jersey simply because he could take a beating. He was also a white man in a sport dominated by black men. That’s why he was chosen March 23, 1975 to battle heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall) by his manager, Al Braverman (Ron Perlman).
What cinched Chuck’s fame was the release of the first “Rocky” film in 1976. Although he denied it, Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector) modelled his underdog character of Rocky Balboa on Chuck Wepner. The people of New Jersey regarded Chuck as their hero. As so often happens, fame went to his head. Chuck, who was married to Phyllis (Elizabeth Moss) and had a loving daughter Kimberly (Sadie Sink), started messing around with other women; principally pretty bartender Linda (Naomi Watts) and snorting cocaine.

I still don’t much like boxing, but I did like “Rocky” and I am glad I got to see the back story in “Chuck.”


Monday, May 22, 2017

Marry Me, Please

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A “Wedding Plan” at All Costs

By Skip Sheffield

“The Wedding Plan” is to get married at all costs. That’s the bottom line on this Israeli comedy about an ultra-orthodox 32-year-old Jewish woman and her quest to find a groom by the eighth night of Hanukah.
Yes, it helps to be Jewish and orthodox at that to appreciate this comedy, written and directed by Rama Burshstein.
I am neither, but the saving grace of this movie is Noa Koler, as the marriage-minded Michal. She has been dating for ten years, but has yet to find a guy willing to make the commitment.
When her latest fiancĂ© jilts her by saying bluntly “I don’t love you,” Michal undertakes a drastic plan: go ahead with the marriage anyway, groom or no groom. God will find a way, she rationalizes.
So at a cost of 15,000 shekels, Michal books a wedding hall for 200 guests. She already has the white wedding dress.
Michal operates a mobile petting zoo. She must do exceptionally well. For a secular Westerner, the thought is, what’s the big whoop? Noa Koler is so appealing, with big, expressive brown eyes; we tend to root for her.

Hey, it’s another romantic fantasy. We’ll do no spoilers here, except to note love can come from the most unexpected places.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Chekhov Visits Bucks County Pennslyvania

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Chekov Spoofed at Delray Beach Playhouse

By Skip Sheffield

Vania, Sonia and Masha are all characters in plays by the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Spike is not.
The Delray Beach Playhouse wraps up its 70th season with “Vania and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a very clever comedy by American playwright Christopher Durang, running through June 4.
Chekhov is known for his gloom and doom. Characters often sit around complaining, but never do anything to change their situation. Such is the case with Sonia (Marcie Hall) and Vanya (Michael DeGrotta). This may be Marcie Hall's greatest performance ever, as she proves when she morphs into Maggie Smith as the Wicked Queen in a spangly dress.
They live in the Bucks County, Pennsylvania house of their childhood, though Sonia is quick to point out she was adopted.
The duo has a glamorous older sister Masha (Dr. Ann Patrice Casale) who foots the bills, and a soothsayer housekeeper Cassandra (Vicki Klein) who cleans up after everyone.
Spike  (Josh Matheney) is the latest boy-toy of five times married Masha, whose movie career is winding down. Then there is Nina (Danielle Tabino), who is an aspiring actress.  In the play’s funniest bit, Vanya stages a reading of his terrible play about the end of the world, with Nina as a molecule.
Yeah, it sounds kinda crazy, but under the sure direction of Randolph DelLago, every vein of humor is mined. Delray Beach Playhouse stands alone not only as South Florida’s oldest community theater, but as its consistently best.
Tickets are $30, and that’s a bargain. Call 561-272-1281, ext. 4.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Love Your Local Cripple

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“The Cripple of Inishmaan” May Win Your Heart

By Skip Sheffield

The witty and wonderful Irish play “The Cripple of Inishmaan” continues through June 4 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
The Irish have a love of language and tall tales. Playwright Martin McDonaugh is the poet laureate of recent plays. Palm Beach Dramaworks staged his “Beauty Queen of Leenane” in 2011.
There is a beauty queen in “Cripple,” though she has no such title. Her name is Helen McCormick and she is played by Adelind Horan in her PB Dramaworks debut. Helen is a feisty red-haired lass and object of affection of the play’s title cripple, Billy Claven.
Adam Petherbridge is also making his Dramaworks debut as Crippled Billy. His performance is nothing short of astounding. Petherbridge turns his right foot out at an impossible 90-degree angle to simulate Billy’s disability. Billy may be crippled, but he is shooting for the stars. A center plot device is his trip to the USA to do a screen test as what else?, a cripple.
Director J. Barry Lewis, at his 34th time at the helm, has called upon an outstanding cast of supporting players, including Elizabeth Dimon and Laura Turnbull as gossiping aunties; Colin McPhillamy as the self-styled town crier; Wesley Slade as Helen’s somewhat dim brother; Jim Ballard as the kindhearted but volatile Babbybobby Bennett; Dennis Creaghan as kindly Dr. McSharry and Harriet Oser as whisky-loving Mammy O’Dougal.
The play is set in the remote Aran Islands in 1934. Scenic artist Rebecca Pancoast and dialect coach Ben Furey lend much to the Irish authenticity. Not a whole lot happens in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” but it is enough to move your heart.
Tickets are $66. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.




Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Love is "Everythin Everything"

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Young Love is “Everything Everything”

By Skip Sheffield

“Everything Everything” is a young adult romantic movie based on the 2015 young adult novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon.
Director Stella Meghie has cast two exceptionally attractive leads: Amandla Stenberg as Maddy Whittier, a 17-year-old girl who has severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) and is allergic to everything, and Nick Robinson as Olly Bright, the proverbial boy next door.
Maddy has been a virtual prisoner in her own home due to her over-protective mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose). Pauline is either a nurse or a doctor. She must be a doctor and a well-paid one at that, because her house is an amazing dream pad in pricey Los Angeles. The house has been customized with sliding glass doors and many windows that enable Maddy to see the world outside.
Believability is not a strong suit of “Everything Everything.” Maddy and Olly, who has an abusive, alcoholic father, establish an e-mail correspondence, and with the secret cooperation of Maddy’s nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera), they finally meet in Maddy’s house. When Pauline learns her daughter has been secretly meeting the boy next door, she angrily fires Carla and hires a severe nurse Maddy calls Nurse Ratched.
What’s a girl to do? In Maddy’s case it is flee to Hawaii where she enjoys a few idyllic days with Olly. Don’t ask how they afford all this, because this is a romantic fantasy.

There is a plot turn and a final reveal, which we won’t. As a date flick, “Everything Everything” is pretty good for the young and gullible. It’s harmless fizzy fun far removed from the harsh reality of everyday life.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Lighter Side of Death in Israel

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A Comedy About Death?

By Skip Sheffield

“One Week and a Day” is a curious little film from Israel opening May 12 at FAU’s Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Movies of Delray. Considering our large Jewish population and its warm reception in Israel it may attract an audience looking for something offbeat.
Writer Asaph Polonsky, who also directs, has essentially written a comedy about death. The title refers to the traditional Jewish shiva, or week of mourning. The deceased, Ronnie Spivak, we never meet, but we learn he died young, of cancer.
Eyal Spivak (Shai Avivi), the boy’s father, is not taking his son’s death well. We first see him playing ping-pong with Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a neighbor boy and friend of the deceased. When Zooler’s parents drop by to deliver a salad (friends traditionally drop off food during shiva), Eyal tries to lock them out. Eyal’s wife Vicky (Evgenia Dodina) intervenes and accepts the salad. Later she finds Eyal has thrown it into the garbage can.
Vicky urges Eyal to get on with his life. Eyal seems determined to prolong his mourning. Zooler comes up with an alternate plan. He scores a bag of marijuana and shows Eyal how to roll a joint. Evidently there is good weed in Tel Aviv. Eyal finds great solace in being stoned, and spends the rest of the film in a dope haze. As you can imagine, this causes some practical problems. Eyal and Zooler are an odd comic duo. Shai Avivi is a fine deadpan comic. Tomer Kapon is a puppy-dog foil to a man his father’s age.
The movie takes a serious yet hopeful turn toward the end. As a goy I do not understand all Jewish traditions, but I do know about death and mourning. Because of this I find “One Week and a Day” oddly uplifting.


Writer-director Asaph Polonsky will be present at screenings at 12:30, 3 and 5 p.m. Saturday, May 14 at Movies of Delray and 7 p.m. Saturday at Shadowood. He will also be at Living Room Theaters at 7:20 p.m. Saturday and 11:45 a.m. Sunday, May 15. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Warner Bros Hatches a Turkey With "King Arthur"


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A Re-booted King Arthur Fights Dazzling Special Effects

By Skip Sheffield

In the various incarnations of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, I do not remember a flaming devilish character; nor do I remember giant elephants, slimy snakes or repulsive reptiles.
You will see all of this and more in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” which is a reboot of an English folk story myth that has been around for more than 800 years, ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth committed the legend to parchment.
British-born Guy Ritchie is director of this bombastic spectacle. He also co-wrote the screenplay with a committee of four other writers. He was more effective with his reboot of “Sherlock Holmes” and even more so with his gritty “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”
Like “Kong” so recently, “King Arthur” is short on story but long on ferocious beasties, endless battles and fiery special effects. Charlie Hunnam plays Arthur, who knows nothing of his regal birth after his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) murdered his father and seized the throne of England. Infant Arthur is spirited away and raised in a brothel.
Following Arthur about is The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who is a sorceress who goes into trances to bestow super-human powers to Arthur. He is already a super-tough street kid. If we don’t get the point it is hammered in repeatedly as Arthur kicks bad guys’ butts.
The one readily recognizable part of the story is the magical sword Excalibur, embedded deeply in a boulder. As a trial of strength, young men are required to try to yank the stone out of the rock. The losers get to keep their lives. Then along comes Arthur, and with help from eyeball-glowing Mage, the sword is released from its prison. From then on, Arthur is a marked man, as his legend grows.
Jude Law seems to be enjoying himself as a shameless villain with no redeeming qualities. Dijimon Hounsou is strong as Arthur’s allie Bedivere, as is Aiden Gillen as his buddy Bill.

“King Arthur” rambles on for over two hours, with Daniel Pemberton’s music blaring. The finale is a forgone conclusion, yet Ritchie embellishes it with even more over-the-top touches. This movie is a prime example of wretched excess.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Emily Dickinson Harbors "A Quiet Passion"

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Emily Dickinson in a “Quiet Passion”

By Skip Sheffield

Why do poets have to die before they are recognized and honored?
Emily Dickinson has only become more celebrated since her death in 1886 at age 55. She was the subject of an award-winning play, “The Belle of Amherst,” brilliantly portrayed by Julie Harris. Now comes “A Quiet Passion,” which is a tour de force by actress Cynthia Nixon.
British director Terrence Davies delves into the soul of America’s most famous female poet. To say Emily did not have it easy is a gross understatement.
“I could not stop for death,” she wrote in one of her later poems. “He kindly stopped for me.” She thought about death a lot.
Emily Dickinson was very shy. You could call her a recluse. Yet she is perhaps the finest female poet America ever produced. She did most of her writing late at night. For that she had to ask permission from her harsh, disapproving father, played by a scarcely recognizable Keith Carradine.
Director Terence Davies (“The Deep Blue Sea”) obviously has great admiration for Emily. He begins with scenes of her as a child (Emma Bell), enrolled in a women’s seminary. The religious life was not for Emily. She was often accused of blasphemy. She was egged on by her very progressive friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who was an early feminist.
“When there is nothing, there is God,” Emily muses. She had an inferiority complex too.
“I am a kangaroo among beauties,” she bemoaned.
Her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) was dismissive of her literary talent. His wife Susan (Jodhi May) sniffed “hers is the literature of misery.”
Emily became afflicted with something called Bright’s Disease, which is incurable and affects the kidneys. In her lifetime she was published only in a small local paper, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Her true riches were found in manuscripts discovered after her death- nearly 1,800 poems.

Creative originality is a gift few people have. This movie is of most interest to English majors like me. Others may find it overly long and tedious.


Viewing the Iraq War From "The Wall"

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War is Hell By “The Wall”

By Skip Sheffield

“The Wall” hits like a ton of bricks in a literal sense. Two American GIs are trapped behind a wall in Iraq, targeted by an unseen sniper. The tension does not let up for one hour, 21 minutes, which is the length of the movie. Director Doug Liman keeps us on the edge of our seats as sharpshooter Allen “Eyes” Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews (former WWE star John Cena) attempt to take out an expert Iraqi sniper in a middle of nowhere desolate desert. The men are huddled behind an ancient, crumbling wall, nervously bantering buddy-buddy small talk. On the other side are several bombed out vehicles. Sgt. Matthews, in a macho maneuver, makes a run to the other side of the wall. He is soon answered by gunfire. One of the bullets makes contact. Immediately a bad situation is made worse.
There is a third, unseen character named Juba (Laith Nakli). He taunts the men in almost perfect English by pretending he is part of a rescue force. In reality he is the hidden Iraqi sniper.
For those of us who opposed our intervention in Iraq over “weapons of mass destruction” that never existed, “The Wall” confirms our worst suspicions.
“The Wall” was written by Dwain Worrell, who wrote the 2015 cop drama “Operator.” Worrell was born in Barbados, but he has a brother who served in the US Army, who provided him some insights. Nicholas Irving, a former US Ranger sniper, served as tech advisor.

Why two soldiers are stranded in the middle of a desert with no support makes no sense. The Iraq War itself makes no sense. If you are looking for mood uplift, this is no movie for you. For the rest of us it is a grim reminder that war is Hell, no matter where it is or for what purpose.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Israel By The Bite

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Get a Taste of Israel

By Skip Sheffield

When I visited Israel for the first and only time in the spring of 2008, the thing that surprised me most was how doggone good the food was.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” is about the wonders of food you will find all over Israel.
Israelis are big on fresh, locally produced food. The State of Israel is small; approximately the same size as our State of New Jersey. Ah, but what a wide variety of culinary delights. Much of Israel is desert-like, but they have instituted revolutionary irrigation techniques that literally make the desert bloom.
“Israeli Cuisine” is largely told by Michael Solomonov, who was born in Israel but raised in the USA and runs a restaurant in Philadelphia. Michael’s older brother was killed in combat in Israel. The tension between Palestinian and Jewish Israelites is unavoidable. Yet much of this documentary celebrates the contribution of Arab-Palestinian cuisine.
“Food is not political,” says one of the chefs interviewed. The key to Israeli cuisine is local ingredients, including olive oil, bread, seafood and lemon.

There is probably no person more goy than me; as an obvious northern European, but I bow to the culinary wonders of the Promised Land. If you want to learn more about the delicious delights of Israel, this is a good place to start.



Wednesday, May 3, 2017

"The Dinner" Not Altogether Delicious

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The (Endless) Dinner

By Skip Sheffield

Have you ever been to a dinner party you thought would never end? “The Dinner” is one such party. This movie by Oven Moverman, based on a novel by Herman Koch, sports some A-list actors, including Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall and Chloe Sevigny.
The dinner of the title is being held in a high-class restaurant. The movie is divided into segments as you would experience at a fancy dinner. It starts with an Aperitif, in which the couples meet and are served a very expensive wine menu. Then there is the Appetizer, which hints of turmoil to come. Katelyn Lohman (Rebecca Hall) is upset her husband Paul (Steve Coogan) didn’t warn her about the possibly unhinged adopted son of Paul’s brother Stan (Richard Gere).
Michael Lohman (Charlie Plummer) is up to mischief of his own, having pilfered money from his dad’s company.
Paul (Coogan) is a lowly school teacher. His brother Stan (Gere) is a big deal success. The drama continues through the Cheese Course. Stan urges his younger brother to seek psychiatric help. Paul is so upset he is almost thrown out of the restaurant.

During the Digestif course, Stan’s wife Barbara (Sevigny) loses her cool and threatens to leave him. If this weren’t enough, Michael Lohman (Plummer) is up to some malicious mischief involving a smelly homeless woman. Is your appetite whetted yet? “The Dinner” plays very much like a play- a very unpleasant one. It is not one I want to see again.