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“Ouija”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ouija” (Universal Pictures)

 

Is it simply a board game or a tool to communicate with the supernatural world? That’s been the dilemma facing players since Ouija was first introduced in 1890 by Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond at their Kennard Novelty Company. According to folklore, when they asked the board what they should name it, it spelled out O-U-I-J-A, then G-O-O-D-L-U-C-K. Now, it’s become a psychological horror thriller.

The plot revolves around teenage Laine (British actress Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig), best friends since childhood. Since one of the cardinal rules about using the Ouija board is that no one should play alone, Laine is shocked to learn that’s just what Debbie was doing when she hung herself using a string of Christmas lights.  Propelled to investigate this gruesome event and find out exactly what happened, grieving Laine recruits her younger sister (Ana Coto), her boyfriend (Daren Kagasoff) and two pals (Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith) for a séance using the antique Ouija board that Debbie discovered in her attic. Sure enough, they make contact with the same malevolent spirit.  In addition, they track down a former resident of Debbie’s home, Paulina (Lin Shaye), now confined to a wheelchair in a mental institution.

Husband-and-wife team Stiles White and Juliet Snowden (“Knowing,” “The Possession”) crafted the low-budget screenplay with White making his directorial debut. Their objective was to utilize the flat board with its letters and numbers and its one movable part (called the “planchette”) to make it as spooky and scary as possible – with the full support of Hasbro, which now manufactures the game. Unfortunately, White relies on cheap jump scares and loud noises. Boo!

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ouija” conjures up a tedious 3. Born out of a desire to explain the seemingly inexplicable, the Ouija board remains enigmatic.

“Fury”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fury” (Columbia Pictures)

Not since Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) has there been a W.W.II picture as barbaric and brutal as David Ayer’s depiction of the physical and emotional horror that “boots on the ground” really represents.

Set in 1945, it revolves around the 2nd Armored Division that’s been in combat for years and is on its last reserve of manpower.  After slogging through Africa, to Normandy, across the Rhine and into Germany, the crew of the M4 Sherman tank dubbed “Fury,” led by Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), is exhausted. As their story begins, they’ve lost one of their original five squad members. He’s been replaced by a fresh-faced, raw recruit, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a former office clerk/typist who just finished basic training and has no fighting experience. If Norman cannot function as an integral part of the team, his ineptitude endangers everyone else. So Wardaddy must get him hardened and battle-ready in 24 hours. “Ideals are quiet. History is violent,” he explains. “We’re not here for right and wrong. We’re here to kill.”

Writer/director David Ayer (“Training Day,” “End of Watch”) is obsessed with the vulnerability of men and their visceral need for camaraderie. It’s all about characters and their relationships, a claustrophobic brotherhood in arms. Smart, swaggering, stoic Wardaddy is their acknowledged leader, muttering, “Best job I ever had.” A deeply religious man, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), the gunner, is always quoting scriptures; Grady “Gordo” Travis (Michael Pena) is the Mexican-American driver; and ordinance loader Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) is a Southern redneck.

In this bleak, heavy-handed scenario, the Americans are good guys; the Nazis are bad guys, particularly the fanatical SS units. The tanks roll through grimy muck and mud, as trucks shovel piles of dead bodies into mass graves. Above all, there is a pervasive sense of authenticity and consistency in emotional tone as Norman’s initial innocence is completely corrupted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fury” is an intensely savage 7. Mission accomplished.

“Intimate Apparel”

Susan Granger’s review of “Intimate Apparel” at the Westport Country Playhouse (2014-2015)

The Westport Country Playhouse saved the best for last. The final play of the season is Lynn Nottage’s vibrant, sensitive story about her great-grandmother, a black seamstress who lived on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1905. That’s back when women weren’t allowed to own property or vote.

At 35 years-old, Esther (Nikki E. Walker) is considered a plain, middle-aged spinster.  For the past 15 years, she’s diligently created lovely, fashionable lingerie on a sewing machine in her room at a boarding house run by Mrs. Dickson (Aleta Mitchell), who keeps urging her to come down to the parlor to meet ‘eligible’ men.  But Esther has a dream: she wants to save enough money to open a ‘beauty parlor’ for black women.  One day, Esther’s humdrum life is turned upside when she receives a letter from George Armstrong (Isiah Johnson), a Panama Canal laborer from Barbados. A co-worker told him about Esther, and he begs to correspond with her.  Problem is: Esther can neither read nor write. So she turns to a sympathetic client, Mrs. Van Buren (Leighton Bryan), a boozing, bourgeois socialite on Fifth Avenue, to compose an answer. As the letter-writing becomes feverish, Esther also enlists the help of her friend Mayme (Heather Alicia Simms), a black prostitute. Meanwhile, Esther develops a courteously friendly relationship with gentle Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider), an Orthodox Jewish fabric salesman in the Garment District. They’re obviously attracted to one another but race and religion keep them in separate worlds; all they can do together is marvel over fine fabrics. When opportunistic George eventually arrives in the United States and marries virginal Esther, her problems become even more complicated and heartbreak looms.

With deft artistry Lynn Nottage, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama and whose play Ruined won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and director Mary B. Robinson create an acute awareness of the dismissive anonymity of African-Americans during that era.  Eschewing sentimentality, they also draw a timely parallel with the perils of contemporary, on-line dating. While the acting ensemble is superb, much credit must also go to Michael Krass, whose choice of costumes speaks as eloquently as the dialogue.

“Intimate Apparel” runs through Nov. 1 at the Westport Country Playhouse.

“Dracula Untold”

Susan Granger’s review of “Dracula Untold” (Universal Pictures)

 

After hundreds of Dracula movies, this is an origin story.  In 15th century Europe, the Turks were in conquering mode. Having been brutally conscripted into their army as a young boy, Vlad (Luke Evans), rules the Romanian kingdom of Transylvania. He is determined that his beloved wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), will live in peace. But when an emissary of Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) arrives and demands 1000 Transylvanian boys, including his son, as slave-soldiers, Vlad is desperate. Realizing his vulnerability, he turns to a ghoulish, mountain-dwelling demon (Charles Dance). In a Faustian deal, Vlad is empowered with superhuman strength and a vampire’s abilities for three days. If he can resist drinking human blood during that time, he will revert to his mortal form.  If not, he is condemned forever. You know what happens.

In their feature film debuts, Irish director Gary Shore and screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless have fashioned as a tragic prequel to Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula story. It attempts to humanize Vlad, who was later known as the Impaler because of his habit of skewering his victims: “Sometimes, the world no longer needs a hero, it needs a monster.”

Attempting to evoke empathy, Luke Evans (“The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug,” “Fast & Furious 5”) reflects the nobility of Vlad’s character and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his family and his people. But once Vlad becomes Count Dracula, all subtlety is lost. Computer-generated bats and other special effects reign supreme and all attempts at acting finesse are banished into the weird horror, visceral bloodlust and carnage.

Sadly, there is no humor, even when a campy, sniveling servant (Zach McGowan) grovels to do Dracula’s bidding and several characters incongruously utter the contemporary word, “Okay.”  And why the rating is PG-13, not R, is a mystery to me.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dracula Untold” is a visually murky, horror fantasy 5. Is it damning with faint praise to say that it doesn’t totally suck?

“You Can’t Take It With You”

Susan Granger’s review of “You Can’t Take It With You” (Longacre Theatre)

 

If you’re looking for laughter, this is the ticket for you.  Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, this classic comedy won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Frank Capra turned the screwball mayhem into a movie and it’s enjoyed many stage revivals – but few as good as this slyly zany gem with an ensemble of 19 superbly-cast actors, directed by Scott Ellis.

Set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in June, 1936, this giddy romp revolves around the extended family that dwells in spacious Vanderhof house on Claremont Avenue. Entrancing Rose Byrne makes her Broadway debut as sensible yet spunky Alice Sycamore, who must introduce her straitlaced Wall Street beau, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), and his prim, patrician parents (Byron Jennings, Johanna Day) to her eccentric clan. Ruling the roost is Grandfather Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), a perennial tax-dodger who quit work 35 years ago to enjoy life to its fullest.  Her parents, Penelope and Paul Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen, Mark Linn-Baker), relentlessly pursue their own frivolous hobbies, as do her dancer sister Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) and musician brother-in-law (Will Brill). There’s also the levelheaded cook Rheba (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her handyman boy-friend Donald (Marc Damon Johnson). Self-involved individualists, they’re, nevertheless, loving and strangely harmonious. Visitors are always welcome, like inventive Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), ballet teacher Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers), alcoholic actress Gay Wellington (Julie Halston) and Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Elizabeth Ashley), who has been reduced to waitressing at Child’s in Times Square.

The charming chaos generated by this nostalgic culture clash is guaranteed to amuse, along with occasional fireworks and the onslaught of determined G-Men.  David Rockwell’s splendid, two-story, turn-of-the-century set is crammed with treasures, like the photograph of George S. Kaufman hanging over the kitchen door and Moss Hart’s on the upstairs wall; a snapshot of the original cast is on the desk. Jane Greenwood’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting design, Jon Weston’s sound and Jason Robert Brown’s music add to the delight.

An escapist tonic during the Great Depression, “You Can’t Take It With You” is still relevant today.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (Barrymore Theatre)

 

This British import is the most exciting, innovative theater to arrive on Broadway on a long, long time. Life-affirming, it not only touches the heart and but also provokes the mind, a rare combination.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s 2003 best-seller of the same name, it revolves around Christopher Boone (Alex Sharp), an inquisitive 15 year-old boy who discovers the corpse of Wellington, a neighbor’s dog, with a pitchfork stuck into it. Clearly on the autistic spectrum but highly gifted in math, logic and ethics, Christopher sets out to investigate whodunit, even though his father warns him not to stick his nose into other people’s business. His persistent inquiries get him into trouble with the police and lead him on a scary, bewildering trip from suburbia into metropolitan London.

Structured in a series of monologues, it’s propelled by Alex Sharp’s sympathetic and extraordinarily energetic performance. He is on-stage the entire time; a 25 year-old recent Julliard graduate, Sharp makes a brilliant Broadway debut. Supporting him are Francesca Faridany, as his helpful special needs teacher; Ian Barford, as his father; and Enid Graham, as his mother.

With dazzling technical expertise, director Marianne Elliott (“War Horse”) taps into the essence of minimalism to stimulate the imagination, along with a dazzling array of lighting, scenic, music and projection designers and choreographers. The stage is surrounded by walls of black squares divided by white lines into boxes, like vaults in cemetery mausoleum. Within them, doors suddenly appear, along with drawers containing props.  Strobe lights flicker and, at one point, confetti falls from the ceiling. Inventive and meticulously detailed, at times it feels like sensory overload – which is exactly what goes on inside Christopher’s brain. It’s emotionally enveloping and quite spectacular.

And FYI: the title comes from a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

“Kill the Messenger”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kill the Messenger” (Focus Features)

 

Set in 1996 and based on the true story of an investigative reporter at the San-Jose Mercury News, this political thriller follows the trials and tribulations of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), whose discovery of the CIA’s covert role in arming the Nicaraguan Contras and spreading urban addiction to crack cocaine so alarmed the US Government officials that they made him the target of a virulent smear campaign.

While working for a small California newspaper, Webb is contacted by Coral Baca (Paz Vega), the seductive girl-friend of drug trafficker Rafael Cornejo (Aaron Farb). She’s furious that the government seized Cornejo’s property before he went to trial and, when he was acquitted, refused to give it back. She wants Webb to expose this heinous practice and, as enticement, she gives Webb a transcript of the Grand Jury testimony of drug smuggler Danilo Blandon (Yul Vasquez), who admits he was recruited by the DEA.  When Webb tracks down drug kingpin, Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) in prison in Managua, he learns the truth – but it’s off-the-record. As crusading Webb doggedly pursues one unsubstantiated insinuation after another, scooping major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, his obsessive sleuthing not only unsettles his editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and publisher (Oliver Platt) but also jeopardizes his relationship with his long-suffering wife (Rosemary DeWitt) and their three children.

Based on Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger about the rise and fall of Gary Webb, along with Webb’s own memoir, Dark Alliances, it’s predictably scripted by Peter Landesman and heavy-handedly directed by Michael Cuesta, best known for helming the pilot of the hit TV series “Homeland.”  Cuesta and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt evoke that same sense of tension and imminent danger, utilizing hand-held photography and intimate close-ups. While Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) embodies Webb’s indignation and intensity, his demise seems inevitable. And Cuesta’s use of sound bites and film clips jarringly veers into documentary territory.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kill the Messenger” is a suspenseful 7, focusing on the fate of yet another truth-seeking whistleblower.

“Left Behind”

Susan Granger’s review of “Left Behind” (Freestyle Releasing/Stoney Lake Entertainment)

Adapted by Paul Lalonde and John Patus, this is yet another incarnation of the prophetic narrative introduced in Jerry B. Jenkins’ and Tim LaHaye’s first best-selling novel.  The plot revolves around what happens to a small group of people following what Christians call the Rapture.

As it begins, Chloe (Cassi Thomson) has returned home from college for the weekend to celebrate the birthday of her pilot dad, Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage). But then Steele gets a last-minute assignment to take an overnight flight from New York to London. At least, that’s what he tells his wife Irene (Lea Thompson), who has become a Bible-toting, fundamentalist Christian. His real plans include a tryst with a sexy, blonde flight attendant, Hattie Durham (Nicky Whelan), and – to that end – he’s snagged U2 concert tickets. Pandemonium ensures when in the air and on the ground, people start disappearing. It’s the Rapture, fulfilling the Biblical prophecy that the righteous will ascend into heaven, while unbelievers are left behind.

Veteran stuntman-turned-director Vic Armstrong hasn’t a clue how to sustain tension between the airplane in the skies crossing the Atlantic and the chaos on Earth. Instead of pacing, he uses clichéd scares, like loud noises and characters or objects jumping out for no apparent reason. There’s an overabundance of expository dialogue in which almost every character explains who they are and their background. Yet Armstrong and his writers never delve into the provocative psychological tension that arises in a marriage when one spouse undergoes a religious conversion and the other is still in doubt. But, perhaps, that’s not surprising, since “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson executive produced.

Insofar as the acting, it’s abominable. None of the actors make their characters either empathetic or convincing. As a result, their frantic dilemma becomes more and more ludicrous. The same miraculous concept is handled more adroitly on HBO’s sci-fi series “The Leftovers” without the heavy-handed evangelical Christian propaganda.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Left Behind” is a 1 – one of the year’s worst. Faith-driven audiences deserve better.

“The Judge”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Judge” (Warner Bros.)

 

Teaming up together for the first time, Robert Duvall (Oscar winner for “Tender Mercies”) and Robert Downey Jr. (two-time Oscar nominee for “Chaplin” and “Tropic Thunder”) play father-and-son at-odds in this poignant courtroom psychodrama.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a glibly unscrupulous Chicago defense attorney whose marriage is crumbling when he’s summoned back to his idyllic Midwestern hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for his mother’s funeral. He’s greeted warmly by his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and mentally-challenged younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), but gets an icy, dismissive reception by his patriarchal father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), who has always disapproved of Hank’s flash-and-dash style. Immediately after the burial as Hank is ready to depart, his father is arrested and charged with the hit-and-run murder of Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), a scummy criminal whom the Judge had sentenced years earlier. Although Hank offers to defend him, the stubborn old man turns to a local yokel, C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), an antiques dealer/lawyer whose incompetence is obvious when he faces determined prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton).  Meanwhile at the Flying Deer Diner, Hank flirts with a sassy young bartender, Carla (Leighton Meester), only to discover to his chagrin that his high-school sweetheart, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), is her mother.

Scripted by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque from a story by director David Dobkin and Schenk, it’s filled with intensely complicated family dynamics which Dobkin – best known for comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “Shanghai Knights” and “Fred Claus” – unfortunately dilutes with expository dialogue and too many secretive subplots. Which is surprising since it was produced by Robert Downey Jr.’s production company, Team Downey, which he formed with his wife Susan, who previously served as an executive vice-president at Joel Silver’s company. In addition, at 141 minutes, it’s far too long.

FYI:  picturesque Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, stands in for Carlinville, Indiana, as the prototypical Norman Rockwell-type town with its annual Blueberry Festival.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Judge” is a sentimental 6, following a prodigal son from sin to redemption.

“Drive Hard”

Susan Granger’s review of “Drive Hard” (Odyssey Media/Image Entertainment)

 

Whatever happened to John Cusack’s career? Why is this once A-list actor now appearing in an idiotic heist clunker like this? That’s just a rhetorical question. Obviously, he needs the money.

Concocted by three credited screenwriters (Chad Law, Evan Law, Brigitte Jean Allen) along with Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith, this potboiler revolves around Peter Roberts(Thomas Jane), a former race car driver who is now working as a driving instructor, and Simon Keller (Cusack), a fellow American who, ostensibly, hires him to learn how to navigate the ‘opposite’ side of the road in Queensland. But that’s not the real reason. What Simon really needs is a getaway driver to help him escape when he pulls an audacious bank heist that nets $9 million in bearer bonds. And that’s what kidnapped Peter is forced to do – at gunpoint.

As they’re doggedly pursued up the Gold Coast by state and federal law enforcement officers, along with the bank’s unscrupulous henchmen, they banter back and forth. Most of it sounds hastily improvised, rather than thoughtfully scripted.  Clad in black, including a hat and dark glasses, Simon gives frantic, henpecked Peter marital advice on how to handle his nagging attorney wife (Yesse Spence) who wants him to take a more lucrative office job to help support their adolescent daughter (Francesca Bianchi). There are also unfortunate encounters with a foulmouthed, pistol-packing old lady (Carol Burns), a bevy of bikers at a bar, and an ill-fated, trigger-happy convenience-store clerk.

If the cliché-filled dialogue is insipid and dull, the chaotic action footage is even more tedious. Years ago, Brian Trenchard-Smith churned out low-budget B-movies like “Dead End Drive-In,” “Leprechaun,”  “Turkey Shoot” and something called “BMX Bandits,” which featured a very young Nicole Kidman. Except for casting the two well-known Hollywood actors, this wannabe crime-caper comedy is hardly a step up.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Drive Hard” stalls out with a disappointing 2, running out of gas far too quickly.