“Mistress America”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mistress America” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

Advertised as a screwball comedy, this Noah Baumbach manic, self-consciously chic creation is riddled with treachery and angst.

Ambitious 18 year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke) wants to be a writer; she’s just started her first semester at Barnard and is already disillusioned about higher education, having been summarily rejected by the college’s Mobius Literary Society.

In Times Square, Tracy meets egocentric, idiosyncratic 30 year-old Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who is a self-styled interior decorator, SoulCycle instructor, social media maven and aspiring restaurateur.

Her latest passion is to open an eatery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with the backing of her Greek boyfriend, Stravros. She envisions combining a bistro with a hair salon and art gallery, calling it Mom’s. Brooke seems to have a lot of good ideas but, as someone astutely observes: “no follow-through.”

Insecure Tracy immediately latches onto seemingly sophisticated Brooke, who will become her stepsister by marriage; Brooke’s divorcee mother (Kathryn Erbe) is about to marry Brooke’s widower father.

Adding to the cast of involved characters, there’s Tracy’s classmate Tony (Matthew Shear) and his viciously jealous girl-friend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

When deluded Brooke’s plans hit a snag and she needs $75,000 by Monday, they drive to Greenwich, Connecticut, to confront deceitful, malicious Mamie-Claire (Heather-Lind), who not only married Brooke’s wealthy ex-fiancé, Dylan (Michael Cernus), but also stole Brooke’s most commercially viable T-shirt concept.

They arrive at Dylan’s gigantic, glass house in the midst of a book-group discussion, as a bevy pregnant women discuss the literary merits of William Faulkner. Eventually, of course, Tracy wises up – but, by then, you’ve lost 84 minutes of your life.

Closely following “While We’re Young,” this is Baumbach’s second release in 2015, and it’s the first writing collaboration between Baumbach and comedienne Greta Gerwig since their highly overpraised “Frances Ha” (2012).

Problem is: their self-conscious, nervously chattering characters never shut up, rambling on and on, seemingly without thinking. They’re ostentatiously erudite, backed by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ synth-pop score.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mistress America” is a shallow, superficial 6, filled with insufferably pretentious poppycock.

06

“Zipper”

Susan Granger’s review of “Zipper” (Alchemy)

 

Sex scandals have felled many politicians and Sam Elllis (Patrick Wilson) is no exception. He’s an ambitious South Carolina federal prosecutor who has established his reputation as a fiery moral crusader.

“Your mythology is your best asset,” a supporter tells him.

Problem is: what was meant to be a one-time experience with a high-end escort service called Executive Privilege becomes into a growing addiction, jeopardizing Sam’s marriage, his family and his career.

It begins with perusing Internet porn, a tempting kiss with an aggressively seductive law school intern (Dianna Agron) and an encounter with a former hooker (Elena Satine), but soon he’s caught in a $1,000-an-hour obsession, arguing with American Express not to cut off his credit.

As this unfolds, it’s hard not to recall the extramarital travails of similarly disgraced politicos, like John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner – along with subplots propelling TV’s far-better “The Good Wife” and “House of Cards.”

Filmmaker Mora Stephens (“Conventioneers”), who wrote the script with husband/editor Joel Viertel, is so anxious to get to the salacious scenes that she doesn’t bother to build crucial character arcs, particularly for Patrick Wilson, who needs to establish audience empathy before his philandering starts.

Which shouldn’t be hard, because seemingly wholesome-looking Wilson began his career in Broadway musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “The Full Monty,” before films like “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Little Children” and “Watchmen.” Wilson also starred in the CBS-TV series “A Gifted Man” and is in the second season of FX’s “Fargo.”

But Wilson’s not the only one whose talent is wasted. So is Lena Headley as Wilson’s bitter, lawyer-turned-stay-at-home wife; Richard Dreyfuss, as Sam’s cynical political strategist; and Ray Winstone as an investigative journalist.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Zipper” is a flaccid 4, another cautionary tale that hits a snag.

04

“War Room”

Susan Granger’s review of “War Room” (Sony’s Affirm Films)

 

Back in 1953, the Ladies Home Journal inaugurated its trademark feature “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Each month, troubled couples would relate their problems and a marriage counselor would suggest solutions.

Perhaps I’m incorrect but I certainly don’t remember any therapist suggesting that a psychologically abused wife turn to praying in a closet as a remedy.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy good spiritually-based movies like “Field of Dreams,” etc. Indeed, my brother, Stephen Simon, started the Internet-based Spiritual Cinema Circle. But not this kind of simplistic drivel.

Set in middle-class suburb, the story revolves around busy Elizabeth “Liz” Jordan (Priscilla Shirer), wife of Tony (T.C. Stallings), mother to 10 year-old Danielle (Alena Pitts) and part-time realtor.

As a pharmaceuticals rep, Tony is often on the road. When he returns home, he has control issues, criticizing Danielle for jumping role instead of playing baseball, refusing to help Liz’s sister out financially, and escaping to the gym whenever he can.

When Liz meets Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie) who is interested in selling her house, a friendship develops, as elderly Clara questions bitterly unhappy Liz about her religious beliefs, urging her to make a commitment to Jesus and cast Satan out of her home.

Pious Clara, who was influenced by her late Vietnam battle-strategist husband, shows Liz her “war room,” an empty closet she uses for praying, referring to Matthew 6:6, which is often translated, “When you pray, go into your inner room”…but the King James Bible substitutes the word “closet.’

Somewhat skeptical at first, Liz nevertheless creates her own clothes closet “war room” when she becomes aware that thieving Tony is on the brink of betraying her with a co-worker.

Evangelical filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick fared better with their previous faith-fueled films:  “Courageous,” “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof.” This time, the pacing lags while Paul Mills’ soundtrack blares with Christian rock anthems, even as Liz and Tony experience a heavy-handed Mary Magdalene moment.

FYI: daughter of Rev. Tony Evans, Priscilla Shirer is a Christian educator. And, if you’re curious about the recommended prayer regimen, check out the Battle Plan Prayer Cards and Sticky Notes, available for purchase on the entrepreneurial Kendricks’ website: https://kendrickbrothers.com

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “War Room” is a proselytizing 3, aimed at a church-going audience.

03

 

 

“We Are Your Friends”

Susan Granger’s review of “We Are Your Friends” (Warner Bros.)

 

Disappointing, low-budget romantic dramas like this are why the August/September period is known as a dumping ground.

Circulating on the L.A. club scene, Cole (Zac Efron), an ambitious 23 year-old music producer, wants to make it as a DJ in the world of raves and electronic dance music (EDM). He pals around with his San Fernando Valley buddies (Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Schaffer).

“If you’re a DJ,” he says in voiceover, “all you need is a laptop, some talent and one track.”

Cole’s big break comes when he meets an arrogant, successful DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley), who becomes his mentor, observing: “You’re trying to be too many different people. Imitation is suicide – Emerson said that.”

Not surprisingly, 36 year-old Reed has a gorgeous, much younger girlfriend/personal assistant, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). Reed seems to encourage their friendship, saying they should go out and “talk about your millennial angst.”

But when a deeper relationship begins to become established, Cole suffers Reed’s wrath.

Max Joseph (producer/host of MTV’s “Catfish”) makes his directorial debut, working from a facile, formulaic screenplay he wrote with Meaghan Oppenheimer from a story by Richard Silverman.

Joseph’s primary problem is casting.  While Zac Efron (“Neighbors”) has established himself as a teen heartthrob, he exhibits little charisma and – let’s face it – Emily Ratajkowski (“Entourage”) is, basically, a beautiful model whose breasts bounce in slow-motion. She’s a sex object here, and whatever acting talent she possesses has yet to be developed.

Only Wes Bentley’s character seems to develop and change, but why did Joseph make him look so much like Wolverine from “X-Men”?

Insofar as the energetic music scene goes, it seems authentic. But I’m not sure I’d know if it wasn’t. I did learn that good DJs synchronize heart rates with throbbing beats-per-minute tracks.

FYI: Joseph glamorizes drug-use, depicting Cole and Sophie enjoying MDMA, along with PCP and marijuana.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “We Are Your Friends” is a pulsating 4. It’s sensory overload.

04

“Meru”

Susan Granger’s review of “Meru” (Music Box Films)

 

The aptly named Shark’s Fin of Meru Peak in the Himalayas pierces the sky, culminating in a slick, vertical 1,500-foot wall with a tip so tiny it barely accommodates one climber.

At 20,700 feet, Meru is considered the anti-Everest, towering high above the sacred Ganges River in Northern India.  There are no Sherpas setting ropes, carrying gear and escorting thrill-seeking, often ill-prepared tourists.

Three courageous American mountaineers met Meru’s challenge not once but twice. In October, 2008, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk embarked on a seven-day trek that disintegrated into a harrowing, 20-day ordeal. Within sight of the summit, they were forced to turn back.

In September, 2011, they reassembled to tackle arduous Meru again, lugging 200 pounds of equipment, including digital cameras, in sub-zero temperatures, encountering blizzards and avalanches, enduring frostbite and trench foot, and amping in a small tent clinging to the side of the mountain.

To say they suffer a number of frights while scaling the heights is an understatement.

Asked why he climbs mountains, Jimmy Chin says: “Participants in these extreme sports don’t know why they do it. They only know that they must. It seems a drive that only they dare embrace – hubris, maybe, or Thantos – or a compulsion to transcend all limitations, and the view is pretty good too.”

Reminiscent of Kevin Macdonald’s “Touching the Void,” Jimmy Chin and his wife E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s 90-minute documentary, edited by Bob Eisenhardt, features interviews with the climbers and their loved ones.

Plus there’s insightful commentary by “Into Thin Air” author Jon Krakauer, who describes Meru’s location as “the point where heaven and earth and hell all come together,” adding, “The rewards of climbing are huge – if you survive.”

But it’s the harrowing journey that inspires, not necessary the destination, particularly when visuals of the ascent are enhanced with J. Ralph’s score and Philip Sheppard’s songs.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Meru” is a spectacular 7, a peak experience.

07

“No Escape”

Susan Granger’s review of “No Escape” (The Weinstein Company)

 

This taut thriller focuses on an American family accidentally caught in geopolitical crossfire, just after the Prime Minister of an unnamed Southeast Asian country is assassinated.

Exhausted after flying from Austin, Texas, to take a new corporate job, jet-lagged Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters (Sterling Jerins, Claire Grace) cannot find their assigned driver at the airport.

That’s where they’re befriended by Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a garrulous British ex-pat who is also staying at the posh Imperial Lotus Hotel. Several hours after Hammond and his genial taxi-driver buddy deliver them to their rooms, armed rebels begin a violent rampage through the city, determined to kill all Americans.

Trying to survive amid a parent’s worst nightmare, Jack, Annie and the girls run to the hotel’s rooftop, where they’re trapped. Desperate, Jack convinces Annie to jump to an adjoining roof and, literally, throws their daughters across a gap for her to catch.

Then they’re forced to flee through the crowded streets, where machete-wielding protesters are battling government forces, searching in these strange surroundings for the U.S. Embassy.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine,” “As Above/So Below”) from a script co-written with his brother/producer Drew, it’s a dramatic departure for Owen Wilson, best known for “Wedding Crashers,” Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and Wes Anderson movies.

What makes this effective is the way the Dowdle brothers and cinematographer Leo Hinstin depict the gritty, visceral terror of ordinary people being lost, hunted and pursued in a strange land. The intense concept was allegedly inspired by a military coup that John witnessed in Thailand in 2006.

FYI: The film’s fictional nation borders Vietnam by a river and was initially meant to be Cambodia. It was actually shot in northern Thailand, just months before the country’s 12th coup d’etat in 2014.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “No Escape” is an action-packed, exciting 8, filled with escapist suspense.

08

“Love and Money”

Susan Granger’s review of “Love and Money” (Pershing Square Signature Center)

 

After three weeks of previews in Connecticut at the Westport Country Playhouse, A.R. Gurney opened his latest play at Off-Broadway’s Signature Center, where he’s the distinguished playwright-in-residence for the 2014-15 season.

Set in the library of a posh Upper East Side townhouse, the surprisingly trivial story revolves around elderly Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), who is determined to sell or donate everything she owns before moving to a retirement home. Her two grown children have died, and she’s decided that wealth is a “curse.” Which is why she wants to give it all away.

Her attorney, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik), advises her to re-think her Will when, suddenly, Walker “Scott” Williams (Gabriel Brown) claims to be her long-lost grandson after a Buffalo newspaper article reveals Cornelia’s charitable intentions. His doubts are echoed by is Cornelia’s Irish maid of 30 years, Agnes Munger (Pamela Dunlap), who dutifully supplies soup and sandwiches.

Walter is a callow, obviously ambitious African-American who claims to have a letter, supposedly written by his mother, Cornelia’s daughter who died of cancer. Then there’s a sassy Julliard student, Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), who’s hoping to acquire Cornelia’s player piano for her school. For a brief interlude, Cole Porter’s music reigns supreme.

But then it’s back to wealthy Cornelia’s dilemma. Is Walter really her grandson or just a clever opportunist? How will this eccentric, melancholy matron handle his outrageous demands?

Although A.R. Gurney’s humorous plays (“The Dining Room,” “The Cocktail Hour”) are astute observations, set in the WASP world of wealth and privilege, unfortunately, this simplistic plot isn’t really plausible, given the circumstances.

But perhaps that lack of focus and credibility can be forgiven in lieu of director Mark Lamos’ astute choice of the strong ensemble cast, headed by Maureen Anderman, who effectively embodies the genteel, altruistic widow.

Another plus is Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous scenic design with tags hanging from the antique furniture, rare books and expensive art work, indicating their future destination.

“Love and Money” runs through October 4 at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, Signature Center on 42nd Street…for tickets and more information, go to http://www.signaturetheatre,org.

 

“Z for Zachariah”

Susan Granger’s review of “Z for Zachariah” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

 

This post-apocalyptic survival tale revolves around the last three people left on Earth, working together to try to restore some semblance of civilization in a remote valley somewhere in Appalachia.

For more than a year, deeply religious Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) has believed that she was the last human on the planet after an unspecified nuclear disaster. In addition to scavenging for supplies in a poisoned ghost town, she plants crops that she can harvest and hunts game, hoping to make it through another brutal winter.

Suddenly, this lonely, yet self-sufficient woman encounters John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a research scientist who was wearing a radiation-proof suit when the devastation hit. He’s an atheist but respects Ann’s devotion to the small chapel built by her father, a preacher, where she often plays the organ.

Just as their tentative relationship begins to thrive, along comes charming Caleb (Chris Pine), a former miner who declares he’s also a Christian and immediately becomes John’s skulking rival for sweet-natured Ann’s affection when she invites him to join them, living in the spacious farmhouse.

Inspired by Robert C. O’Brien’s posthumously published 1974 YA novel, it’s a complex relationship drama, adapted by Nissar Modi and directed by Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), sensitively delineating the religious and racial subtext, building to a contrived, yet somewhat ambiguous climax.

Cinematographer Tim Orr takes full advantage of the rugged New Zealand locations, lingering by the lush forests and picturesque, if radioactive waterfall as the Genesis-revisited story unfolds, accompanied by Heather McIntosh’s effective score.

After making such an auspicious impression in “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Focus,” Australian actress Margot Robbie seems remarkably restrained, while Chris Pine’s (“Star Trek”) scheming becomes all too obvious.

Indeed, only British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) creates an emotionally compelling, three-dimensional character.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Z for Zachariah” is a subtle 7, reveling in its minimalist simplicity.

07

 

 

Hitman: Agent 47

Susan Granger’s review of “Hitman: Agent 47” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Even in the dog days of August, there’s no excuse for this dreadful, mind-numbing reboot!

Based on a videogame, it updates Timothy Olyphant’s 2007 adaptation, casting British actor Rupert Friend (TV’s Homeland”) as the elite, elusive assassin, who is genetically engineered to be the perfect killing machine, identified only by the last two digits on the barcode tattooed on the back of his bald head.

Suffering from a mysterious ailment and over-medicated with prescription pills, Katia (Hannah Ware) is on-the-run in Berlin, searching for her scientist father, Dr. Livenko (Ciaran Hinds), who devised the first Agent program and is now in hiding.

Although she’s ostensibly clairvoyant, she doesn’t realize she’s being targeted until she encounters an American named John Smith (Zachary Quinto) who serves as her ostensible protector – or is he?

Endowed with strength, speed and stamina, stoic Agent 47 is after an evil Syndicate that plans to unlock the secret of his past to create a super-military force whose powers will surpass even his own.

Problem is: early in the fight between Agent 47 and John Smith in the Engine Testing facility, the face of Zachary Quinto’s stuntman is clearly visible, breaking any semblance of continuity.

Incoherently scripted by Skip Woods and Michael Finch, it’s senselessly helmed by Aleksander Bach, making his directing debut with a multitude of uber-violent fight scenes and explosive car crashes, while visiting the sights of Singapore’s Marina Bay.

Audi must have paid mightily for product placement, and astute spotters report there’s even a reference to the popular Danish videogame when a yellow rubber duck is shown floating in a bathtub along with a partially submerged toaster.

FYI: Paul Walker was cast in the title role, building on the success of his “Fast and Furious” franchise, before his sudden death in November, 2013.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hitman: Agent 47” is a tedious, idiotic 2. But obviously, there were hopes for a sequel, since there’s the introduction of yet another clone.

02

 

“The End of the Tour”

Susan Granger’s review of “The End of the Tour” (A24)

 

The final five days of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 book tour for his epic 1,079-page novel “Infinite Jest” are documented by ambitious Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky.

In what is, essentially, a two-hander, Jason Segel is Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg is Lipsky. They chat about a variety of subjects, the most interesting of which is how reclusive Wallace has tried to adjust to his sudden fame and celebrity.

Not so coincidentally, Lipsky had just had his own first novel, “The Art Fair.” published when he convinced his Rolling Stone editor (Ron Livingston) that he felt a genuine kinship with Wallace, although what comes across in his profile is a curiously intoxicating combination of envy and adulation.

Lipskey journeyed to wintry Bloomington, Indiana, to meet Wallace in his ranch-style home. They go to a bookstore and do a Minneapolis-based publicity jaunt, where Joan Cusack plays their no-nonsense driver.

There’s also a casual interlude with Julie (Mamie Gummer) and Betsy (Mickey Sumner), Wallace’s former girlfriend. And when Wallace observes Lipsky flirting with Betsy, he’s quite offended.

Ironically, the interview was never published and two men never met again. Lipsky’s audio tapes were stashed in a closet until after Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at age 46. They were subsequently printed as “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.”

Subtly adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Donald Margulies as a tenuous yet intense relationship/character study, it’s deftly directed by James Ponsoldt (“Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now”), whose casting is spot-on.

Delving into Wallace’s complicated psyche, his reticence and insecurities, Jason Segel’s understated, yet nuanced performance is remarkable; best known for affable comedies (“Sex Tape,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), this is a real break-out dramatic role.

In contrast, Jesse Eisenberg (“American Ultra”) reveals Lipsky as a sleazy, sycophantic journalist, determined to burrow beneath Wallace’s protective exterior.

There’s not much revealing insight, however, and the challenge for the audience is deciding which of these men is the more authentic – and honest.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “The End of the Tour” is a compassionate, conversational 7, reminiscent of “American Splendor” about underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar.

07