“Ratchet & Clank”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ratchet & Clank” (Gramercy Pictures)

 

Based on the popular PlayStation video game, this CG-animated feature from Rainmaker Entertainment basically reprises “Escape From Planet Earth” and/or “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” revolving around galactic heroes, a menacing mega-weapon and a bunch of aliens voiced by celebrities.

Rocket mechanic Ratchet (James Arnold Taylor) is a Lombax, a sort of feline/squirrel with a tail similar to a lion, while his brainy, pint-sized buddy is Clank (voiced by David Kaye), a mellifluous, good-hearted robot from Orxon whom Ratchet saved from the junkyard. (Think WALL-E or R2D2).

Ratchet yearns to join an elite group called the Galactic Rangers (voiced by Rosario Dawson, Jim Ward, Bella Thorne, Dean Redman), led by egotistical, lantern-jawed Captain Qwark (voiced by Jim Ward).

His chance comes when he’s forced to defend his home, along with all the other planets in the Solana Galaxy, from destruction by a sinister Blarg, Chairman Drek (voiced by Paul Giamatti), and his cohorts: ruthless Victor Von Ion (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) and ex-Ranger mad scientist sidekick, Dr. Nefarious (voiced by Armin Shimerman).

Scripted by the game’s writer T.J. Fixman, along with Kevin Munroe and Gerry Swallow, it’s frantically directed by Munroe and Jericca Cleland, who try to use blaring sound and blinding color to distract from the unassailable conclusion that the media-melding, underdog plot is stale, the dialogue is blandly generic and, despite the pop culture hashtags, there’s no audience interaction.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ratchet & Clank” is a derivative, tacky 3. Don’t bother.

03

“Waitress”

Susan Granger’s review of “Waitress” (Brooks Atkinson Theater: April, 2016)

The intoxicating aroma of a freshly baked pie envelops you the moment you enter the Brooks Atkinson Theater – and that cinnamon/nutmeg scent is as irresistible as this new musical.

When the cherry pie-crust-adorned curtain goes up, it reveals a small-town diner where Jenna (Jessie Mueller) discovers to her dismay she’s pregnant and realizes that, perhaps, her astonishing pie-baking skill can finance an escape from her menacing, abusive husband, Earl (Nick Cordero).

As this unexpectedly romantic feminist fable unfolds, spirited Jenna dallies with her married gynecologist (Drew Gehling) while her friends/fellow waitresses (Keala Settle, Kimiko Glenn) concoct their own recipes for happiness while serving up slices of creatively named “Blueberry Bacon,” “Betrayed By My Eggs,” and “My Husband is a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie.”

Based on Adrienne Shelly’s quirky 2007 movie, starring Keri Russell, it’s been adapted by Jessie Nelson with an original score by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles. Director Diane Paulus (“Pippin”) developed this sweet-and-savory project at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater, which also spawned “Once” and “Finding Neverland.”

Vibrant, Tony Award-winning Jessie Mueller, who played Carole King in “Beautiful,” surpasses herself, aided and abetted by a strong supporting cast that also includes outrageously comedic Christopher Fitzgerald and curmudgeonly Dakin Matthews in the avuncular Andy Griffith role.

To complete the soulful confection, toss in the talents of choreographer Lorin Latarro, set designer Scott Pask, costumer Suttirat Anne Larlab, sound by Jonathan Deans and lighting by Christopher Akerlind. And the band that’s discreetly visible on-stage.

As for the delicious, deep-dish pies-in-jars sold by hawkers in the aisles and lobby – they’re created by Stacy Donnelly, who runs Cute as Cake bakery in nearby Hell’s Kitchen.

Bottom line: Never say ‘no’ to a freshly baked pie – or underestimate the earthy, empowering poignancy of Jessie Mueller’s warbling “She Used to be Mine.”

 

“Keanu”

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

 

Voiced by “The Matrix” star, Keanu is the tiny gray-and-white kitten that serves as the linchpin in an extended sketch by TV’s Comedy Central favorites Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

As Keanu’s story begins, he’s scooting out of a drug-lab shootout, miraculously winding up on the doorstep of pot-puffing slacker Rell Williams (Peele), who’s depressed after being dumped by his girl-friend. With the approval of his uptight best friend/cousin Clarence (Key), Rell adopts the fluffy feline, naming him Keanu, which he thinks is Hawaiian for “cool breeze.”

When Keanu disappears after a break-in, Rell’s stoner neighbor Hulka (Will Forte) steers them to a seedy Los Angeles strip club, Hot Party Vixens, the headquarters of the notorious 17th Street Blips (“the ones who got kicked out of the Bloods and Crips”), run by kingpin Cheddar (rapper Method Man), who has not only abducted Keanu but also re-named him New Jack, decking him out in a do-rag and bling.

In order to ingratiate themselves with Cheddar, nerdy, soft-spoken Rell and Clarence pass themselves off as street thugs called Tectonic and Shark Tank – and their gangsta impersonations poke fun at racial stereotypes.

To get their cat back, they’re sent on a mission to deliver drugs to the Hollywood home of a maniacal movie star (Anna Faris), accompanied by Cheddar’s surly accomplice Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish). Not surprisingly, there are unexpected complications – with a nod to Clarence’s giddy passion for pop singer George Michael.

Lackadaisically scripted by Jordan Peele with his longtime TV writing partner Alex Rubens, it’s episodically directed by “Key & Peele” show veteran Peter Atencio. And credit the cat-wranglers who juggled seven different tabbies in the title role.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Keanu” is a subtly absurdist 6, purring with subversive satire.

06

“Mother’s Day”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mother’s Day” (Open Road)

 

Perhaps the best that can be said about this cringe-worthy rom-com is that octogenarian Garry Marshall has assured his continuing Academy membership by staying ‘active’ in an industry that could all-too-soon forget he once directed hits like “Pretty Woman,” “Runaway Bride,” “Beaches” and “The Princess Diaries,” not to mention creating TV’s “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley.”

Following “Valentine’s Day” (2010) and “New Year’s Eve” (2011), Marshall’s star-studded holiday franchise now includes this treacly ensemble tribute to motherhood in its various suburban permutations.

Perennially perky Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) is a divorcee with two sons whose ex-husband (Timothy Olyphant) has just married his much-younger girlfriend (Shay Mitchell). It’s a foregone conclusion that Sandy will end up with widower Bradley (Jason Sudeikis), father of teenage daughters, whose military wife (Jennifer Garner) died in combat in Afghanistan.

Jesse (Kate Hudson) and her sister are estranged from their prejudiced/homophobic mother (Margo Martindale) and father (Robert Pine). Unbeknownst to their parents, Jesse’s married to Russell (Aasif Mandvi), whose family came from India, while Gabi (Sarah Vhalke) has a lesbian spouse (Cameron Esposito).

Then there’s Kristin (Britt Robertson), who discovers that her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption a newborn, is super-successful Miranda (Julia Roberts, wearing a bizarre red wig), who hawks ‘mood pendants’ on the Home Shopping Network.

Scripted by Tom Hines, Anya Kochoff-Romano and Matthew Walker from a story by Lily Hollander, the sappy, sentimental, intertwining narratives are disjointed and the various vignettes are not only formulaic but utterly predictable, including an excursion to the ER and the runaway RV.

While it’s fun to see Hector Elizondo again (he’s always in Garry Marshall’s movies), the most spontaneous moments occur during the ‘blooper’ credits, as Jennifer Aniston calls Julia Roberts “Julia,” not “Miranda,” and Roberts stares vacantly out a train window.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mother’s Day” is a confectionary 4. Mom deserves better.

04

 

“Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance”

Susan Granger’s review of “Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Set for release on the day before the Kentucky Derby, Louise Osmond’s uplifting, feel-good film shows how sometimes ordinary gals-and-guys can not only compete but win at the elitist “sport of kings.”

The story begins when a middle-aged barmaid, Janet Vokes, in a South Wales workingman’s pub gets an over-the-rainbow notion to breed a steeplechase racehorse. Knowing, she’ll need financial support, she rallies her friends and neighbors, including a local tax adviser, Howard Davies, who forms a “syndicate.”

Together, they raise the money necessary to buy Rewbell, a brood mare, and find a promising, yet inexpensive stud, Bien Bien. Then they patiently wait for the scrappy foal – named Dream Alliance – to be trained. While Dream’s first races against thoroughbreds aren’t spectacular, he becomes a serious contender, finishing second in Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup, then actually winning the Perth Cup.

What could be an insurmountable problem occurs when Dream Alliance severs a tendon, and the owners must decide whether to put him down or fork over more of their hard-earned cash for expensive surgery. The outcome is obvious when Dream Alliance wins the Welsh Grand National at odds of 20-1.

It was the former coal-mining community’s resolute tenacity that intrigued British director Louise Osmond (“Deep Water”) and inspired this documentary that’s peppered with talking-head interviews.

“I knew nothing about racing,” Vokes admits. ”I did know these well-to-do people like to keep the sport to themselves.”

Indeed, when one member of the syndicate tries to bring a brown-bag lunch to the racecourse, he’s turned away at the gate.

“’Dream’ took us to places you couldn’t even imagine,” muses Davies. “We actually broke the mold…It’s elating when you can do something, particularly when no one gives you a chance.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance” is an inspirational 6, a defiant, rags-to-riches equine tale that’s patched together from archival footage.

06

 

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” (Universal Pictures)

 

So much went wrong with this disjointed prequel/sequel to “Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012) that it could serve as a warning to aspiring filmmakers.

First, there’s no Snow White.  After Kristen Stewart had a scandalous, ill-fated fling with married director Rupert Sanders, it was obvious that neither would be returning for this next episode.

Salary troubles surfaced when Sony e-mail hacks revealed Charlize Theron was to be paid substantially less than Chris Hemsworth; she refused to sign until she got the same $10 million+ as her co-star.

Then, A-list screenwriters David Koepp and Frank Darabont exited the project, leaving Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin to dabble with (but never develop) the campy, medieval characters created by Evan Daugherty – with a nod to Elsa’s Snow Queen in Disney’s “Frozen” – under the aegis of VFX supervisor-turned-director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan.

The characters are introduced by a narrator (Liam Neeson): there’s scheming, perennially evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who feuds with her rage-filled, recently disillusioned younger sister, Ice Queen Freya (Emily Blunt). They’re challenged by former child soldiers Sara (Jessica Chastain) and Eric (Chris Hemsworth) who, years ago, were kidnapped from their homes and forced to serve in Freya’s frosty Army.

Then along comes Prince William (Sam Claflin), a leftover morsel from “Snow White and the Huntsman,” who recruits hunky, ax-throwing Eric to recover the coveted Magic Mirror. He’s joined in this quest by dwarves Nion (Nick Frost), his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon) and Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith), along with Sara.

What works? The spectacular visual effects, particularly the shape-shifting liquid gold of the Mirror – thanks to production designer Dominic Watkins, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and costume designer Colleen Atwood.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is a fumbling 4, a fatally flawed fairytale.

04

“A Hologram for the King”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Hologram for the King” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

 

Divorced, broke and unable to pay his daughter’s college tuition, Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is introduced in an angst-filled, fantasy dream sequence, singing Talking Head’s “Once in a Lifetime.”

Apparently chosen for this job because of some vague connection to the Royal family, Clay is an affable, middle-aged American businessman who arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, determined to sell a 3D holographic communications system to King Abdullah.

Jet-lagged, Clay oversleeps his first day on the job, forcing him to find a driver-for-hire, wise-cracking Yousef (comedian Alexander Black), to take him to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (KMET), where Clay and his clueless IT team of three millennials are stuck in a tent in the middle of a construction site surrounded by camel-strewn desert.

Disoriented, unsettled and impatient, Clay must not only deal with the obvious cultural differences he encounters in this eerie model city but also his existential loneliness and need to rediscover a sense of purpose.

It’s two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks’ heartfelt performance that propels your interest, particularly when a flashback reveals Clay’s father (Tom Skerritt) berating him for outsourcing of American jobs at the Schwinn Bicycle Company.

As days pass while waiting for the King or, at least, his liaison to arrive, Clay discovers a large cyst on his back; this metaphoric growth, he fears, is sapping his strength and vigor. Which leads him to seek help from a sympathetic Saudi physician, Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), as a subtle relationship develops.

Adapted from Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel by German writer/director Tom Twyker (“Run Lola Run,” “Cloud Atlas”), it’s a timely, if trifling allegory about malaise and globalization, not far removed from Jack Lemmon’s “Save the Tiger” (1973), Bill Murray’s “Lost in Translation” (2003) and Ewan MacGregor’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” (2011).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Hologram for the King” is a strangely stylized, absurdist 6, so it’s not surprising that the epigraph comes from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”: “It is not every day that we are needed.”

06

“Elvis & Nixon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Elvis & Nixon” (Bleecker Street/Amazon Studios)

 

Chronicling an amusing historical anecdote, Liza Johnson’s droll reminiscence shows how Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) met President Richard M. Nixon (Kevin Spacey) in the Oval Office one afternoon.

In late 1970, watching the news at Graceland, Presley becomes so infuriated with the growing drug problem and moral decline in the United States that he shoots out the TV set with a .45. That’s his first reaction.

His second is to become an undercover federal agent. But – for that – he’ll need a badge from J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Narcotics. And the only way to get one is from the President of the United States.

So it falls it Presley’s long-time confidante, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), along with Memphis crony Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), to deliver a rambling, hand-written letter to the White House and convince Nixon aides Egil “Bud” Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) to arrange an appointment.

Oblivious to Presley’s influence, Nixon has absolutely no interest in meeting the pop singer – until his daughter Julie begs for an autographed photo. Once the two meet, protocol is discarded as the King and POTUS chat informally – with Presley gulping the President’s Dr. Pepper and munching his M&Ms.

Michael Shannon digs beneath the ridiculous glitz and swagger to reveal Presley as seriously delusional, yet down-to-earth Southerner who firmly believes he can secretly infiltrate disruptive groups, like the Black Panthers, and bring them to justice.

In contrast, Kevin Spacey embodies hunched-over Nixon’s chronic insecurity and social ineptitude with remarkable mimicry, never succumbing to caricature.

Inventively fictionalized by screenwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes, it’s astutely directed by Liza Johnson as a “Dr. Strangelove’ish” two-hander, focusing on the quirks and foibles of these two iconic figures.

FYI: the most requested photo in the National Archive is the one of Presley and Nixon shaking hands at the conclusion of their Oval Office meeting on December 21, 1970.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Elvis & Nixon” is a surreal 7, revealing a bizarre moment at the summit.

07

“The Crucible”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Crucible” (Walter Kerr Theatre – April, 2016)

Iconoclastic Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s mannered deconstruction of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” revives the notorious 17th century Salem witch trials, stripping the concept down to its timelessly scary essence. Earlier this season, 35 year-old van Hove did a similar avant-garde revival of Miller’s tragic “A View from the Bridge.”

Set in a big country classroom, “The Crucible” revolves around the arrogant manipulators and the ignorance of the manipulated, as a group of pious teenagers accuse puritanical townspeople of witchcraft.

They’re headed by willful Abigail (Saoirse Ronan), a servant girl, who is determined to wreak revenge against her adulterous, guilt-riddled lover, John Proctor (Ben Whishaw), and his wife, Elizabeth Proctor (Sophie Okonedo).

While the schoolgirls are dressed in their proper uniforms on Jan Versweyveld’s utilitarian set, everyone else is in drab, rough-hewn garb, courtesy of costumer Wojciech Dziedzic.

Making her Broadway debut, blonde Saoirse Ronan oozes malevolent intensity, more reminiscent of the mean girl in “Heathers” than the meek, dark-haired Irish lass in “Brooklyn.”

Also making his Broadway debut, British Ben Whishaw exudes surprising vulnerability, albeit hidden under a massive, unruly beard that makes him unrecognizable as the gadget-master Q, sparring with Daniel Craig’s James Bond in “Spectre” and “Skyfall.”

Despite superb performances from the entire ensemble, Ivo van Hove’s supernatural staging of this allegorical drama is uneven and bewildering, particularly when a young girl levitates off her bed, a blast of wind topples the classroom, a wolf is on the prowl and mysterious animation appears as writing on the blackboard – accompanied by Philip Glass’s rhythmically percussive music.

Back in 1953, when “The Crucible” was first staged, it was Arthur Miller’s philosophical denunciation of the intolerance and mass hysteria caused by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee’s hunt for Communists. With much less specificity in 2016, this rendition is less effective, although it could certainly be loosely re-interpreted during this chaotic Presidential election year.

“The Road: My Life with John Denver”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Road: My Life with John Denver” (Ivoryton Playhouse: April 2016)

 

Ivoryton Playhouse opens its 2016 season with John Denver’s recorded voice singing “Aspenglow,” a prelude to this enjoyable, toe-tapping musical tribute.

Actually, it kind of fits into that subspecies known as a jukebox musical. According to Wikipedia, “A jukebox musical is a stage or film musical that uses previously released popular songs as its score. Usually the songs have in common a connection with a particular popular musician or group — because they were either written by, or for, the artists in question, or at least covered by them.”

Premiering at the Milwaukee Rep last summer, it’s scripted by co-writers Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, who played in John Denver’s band for seven years and was his neighbor in Aspen. Wheetman oversees the music, as the production is adroitly helmed by Mylar, utilizing Daniel Nischen’s roadhouse set, Vickie Blake’s costumes, Marcus Abbott’s subtle lighting, and Tate R. Burmeister’s sound design.

The conceit is that John Denver’s music and life are viewed through the reminiscent perspective of Danny (David M. Lutken) and the Singer (Katie Deal), who include favorites like “Rocky Mountain High,” “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and “Sunshine on my Shoulder.”

At times, Deal also assumes the persona of Denver’s first wife, Annie, as well as Danny’s first wife, Penny.  It’s a bit confusing, admittedly, but, over time, as this musical has a few more incarnations, the unevenness may work itself out, even though their ill-fated marriages suffered from them being ‘on the road’ far too long.

“Be careful what you pay with because you will pay,” notes Danny, sadly, “Sometimes with your wife and family.”

What’s in its favor is the audience goodwill engendered by two genuinely likeable, down-home performers, David M. Lutken and Katie Deal.

Concluding, appropriately, with Denver’s iconic “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the audience is invited – once again – to sing along – which they do, or did, at the matinee I attended.

FYI: John Denver died in a plane crash in 1997 at the age of 53.

“The Road: My Life with John Denver” plays at Ivoryton through Sunday, April 24. For more information, call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.