Categories

“Into the Woods”

Susan Granger’s review of “Into the Woods” (Disney)

 

Based on the Brothers Grimm’s cautionary tales, James Lapine/Stephen Sondheim’s insightful, slyly comedic, 1987 Broadway musical has been cleverly mounted by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”).  Dare I say it’s even better than the stage version?

Why? Since Stephen Sondheim’s intricate music and tongue-twisting lyrics are extraordinarily demanding, on-stage, some inevitably get garbled. Whereas, on-screen, everything is crystal-clear.

The plot revolves around a sensitive, humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who yearn for a child. Years ago, the witch (Meryl Streep – flawless in a blue fright wig and yellow teeth) placed a curse on his family. The only way it can be broken is for them to go into the forest on a quest to find items she requires, including Red Riding Hood’s cape and Jack and the Beanstalk’s cow, Milky White.

Adapted by the musical’s original writer/director James Lapine and directed by Rob Marshall, the first half is a playful romp, a farce; then it gets serious, exploring what happens after ‘happily ever after.’ It’s all about making choices – moral decisions – the relationship of parents and children, and our responsibility for one another.

In these fractured fairy tales, heroes and heroines aren’t always what they seem.  Dazzled by Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) deliberately leaves her slipper behind. Then, when he finds her, she’s indecisive, poignantly warbling “On the Steps of the Palace.”

The encounter between bratty, shop-lifting Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the lecherous Wolf (Johnny Depp) is fraught with double-entendres, while Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) faces her own dilemma when a Prince (Billy Magnussen) rescues her.

And it’s not surprising that Cinderella’s wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski) and step-sisters (Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch) bear a startling resemblance to the Kardashians.

The Princes’ duet “Agony” is hilarious – and there are glorious songs: “Children Will Listen,” “Last Midnight,” “Stay With Me,” “Giants in the Sky” and “No One Is Alone,” among others.

As the final reprise of the title song observes: “The way is dark/The light is dim/But now there’s you/Me, her and him,” as a new family forms.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Into the Woods” is an enchanting, tuneful 10. Do what the witch says: “Go to the wood!”

“Annie”

Susan Granger’s review of “Annie” (Sony)

 

“Annie” had its world premiere in August, 1976, at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT. No one associated with that show or its subsequent incarnations could have possibly envisioned this cloying, superficial debacle.

Based upon Harold Gray’s popular comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” the Depression-era story revolved around an optimistic moppet, her dog Sandy and her benefactor, billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.

Updated to the present with a multicultural cast, the sassy, spunky tyke (Quvenzhane Wallis) is temporarily adopted by a cynical cellphone mogul, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), as a ploy for voter appeal when he runs for Mayor of New York City.  At his side are his assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) and campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale).

Meanwhile in Harlem, bitter, alcoholic Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) takes in foster kids to get a monthly stipend from the city. Sensing the possibility of riches, she passes off imposters as Annie’s birth parents.

Discarding much of Thomas Meehan’s book, Charles Strouse’s music and Martin Charnin’s lyrics, it’s scripted by Aline Brosh McKenna (“27 Dresses”) and director Will Gluck (“Easy A”), who hasn’t a clue about helming a musical. New songs by Gia, Greg Kurstin and Gluck are abysmal, which is surprising since Jay Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith produced.

One of the worst stage-to-screen adaptations, its ineptitude is exemplified when Grace shows Annie her ‘new’ home, a, cavernous ultramodern penthouse, to “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.” And “Moonquake Lake” serves as a gimmicky movie-within-a-movie – with Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Rihanna.

Oscar-nominated for her natural authenticity in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” 11 year-old Quvenzhane Wallis is not a singer. Jamie Foxx is – but his numbers are forgettable. And neither Rose Byrne nor Cameron Diaz should bank on musical comedies in the future.

FYI: John Huston made “Annie” into a movie musical in 1982.  As wretched as it was, this is worse!

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, this rebooted “Annie” is a flawed 4, as the bling-besotted waif advises, “Save your dreams for good stuff, like shopping with an unlimited credit card.”

 

“The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies” (Warner Bros.)

 

Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth for the last time with this fast-paced, concluding chapter of his ponderous cinematic adaptation of “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s absolutely essential that you see the two previous installments, since this fantasy picks up where the last one ended – with the fire-breathing dragon Smaug deccimates Lake-town residents after the Dwarves of Erebor reclaimed their birthright and gold.

Meanwhile, their ancient enemy Dark Lord Sauron has returned, ordering Azog and his legions of malevolent Orcs to attack. As the conflict escalates, the Dwarves, Elves and Men must decide whether to unite or be destroyed.

Scripted by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, working from earlier drafts by Guillermo del Toro, it’s combat-driven, as massive political factions prepare to fight one another during the ultimate battle at the Lonely Mountain stronghold. Since there’s little or no character development, except for power-crazed Dwarf King Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), it lacks emotional depth.

There is an ill-fated love triangle involving Wood-Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), and soldier Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who has a tortured relationship with his father, Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace).  Genial Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) plays peacemaker, protecting the Arkenstone.

Ian McKellen returns as the pipe-smoking wizard Gandalf the Grey, while Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee reprise their “Lord of the Rings” characters. The cast also includes Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Billy Connolly, Ryan Gage, Stephen Fry and Ian Holm.

Jackson’s use of 3D and a higher frame rate (48-per-second) creates a sharp, smooth flow between the live action and the highly detailed, computer-generated imagery from New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.

After a drawn-out Dwarf vs. Orc duel atop a frozen waterfall, Peter Jackson weaves all the threads together in the bucolic Shire, positioning it a preface to his previous “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies” is a visually spectacular 6, a satisfying finale.

“Inherent Vice”

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

 

You don’t have to be stoned to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s laconic adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s pulpy crime mystery, but I suspect it would ease the tedium.

Set in (fictional) Gordita Beach in the 1970s, the meandering narrative revolves around stoner Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private-eye who works out of what looks like a medical office.

Whisperingly narrated by a flower child observer, Sortilege (singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom), it tells the story of Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, daughter of actor Sam), who’s involved with Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), a rich real-estate developer. Both mysteriously disappear.

Along with the consumption of lots of weed, there’s the mysterious Golden Fang, an Indo-Chinese drug cartel, and a coke-snorting dentist (Martin Short). Although he’s presumed dead, tenor sax player Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) is very much alive, although he’s not who you think he is.

Dazed Doc’s nemesis is Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a square-jawed, buzz-cut LAPD cop who moonlights as a TV actor and celebrity pitchman. Plus there are oddball hustlers, dopers, rockers, cultists and white supremacists, played by Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Malone, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, among others.

Problem is: writer/director/producer Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”) never ties together the many bizarre, inconsequential fragments, including a surreal scene of hippies eating pizza, staged as homage to “The Last Supper.”

Wearing a bushy afro, greasy sideburns and sunglasses, Joaquin Phoenix’s intensely addled Doc seems to be tripping out on Jeff Bridges’ Dude from “The Big Lebowski.”

“You can only cruise the boulevards of regrets so far,” one character observes – and I suspect you’ll regret that you ever stumbled in to try to make sense of this murky two-hours and 28-minutes.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Inherent Vice” is a hollow, pointless 2. A better title would have been “Incoherent Vice.”

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”

Susan Granger’s review of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (20th Century-Fox)

 

What was Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Prometheus”) thinking? Not only does his $140-million epic spectacle pale in comparison with Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” (1956), but he has the audacity to depict God as a petulant British boy.

The Biblical story is there:  baby Moses found in the reeds and raised as companion to Pharaoh’s son Ramses, the slavery of the Hebrews, the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  But the Ten Commandments seem like an afterthought.

When first seen, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Australian actor Joel Edgerton) are grown men, warriors charged with caring for each other by Pharoah Seti (John Turturro), whose soothsayer warns him of an ominous prophecy.

When a sneaky viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn) exposes Moses’s lowly Hebrew lineage, he is banished.  Wandering through the wilderness, Moses meets a winsome wench (Maria Valverde) whom he marries and they have a son.

Obviously suffering from an identity crisis, brooding Moses is reluctantly compelled by a strange lad, who calls himself “I Am,” to strive to free the Hebrews from slavery. Pharaoh refuses, enduring frogs, gnats, boils and locusts until the final plague – the death of his firstborn son – convinces him.

You think you know what comes next, right? Not quite. Instead of the Red Sea ‘parting,’ the water quietly recedes, making it far less dramatic, even when waves engulf the Egyptian armies.

Actually, the most ferocious action occurs when huge CG crocodiles attack fishermen, along with the fish, turning the Nile red with blood. But I don’t remember crocodiles in the Old Testament, do you?

Working from an atrocious, revisionist script, credited to four screenwriters (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zaillian), the actors flounder, grimly garbling their lines, particularly Bale and Edgerton. As a Hebrew elder, Ben Kingsley delivers wise counsel, while Sigourney Weaver snarls as Ramses’ resentful mother.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is an underwhelming 4 – with little or no emotional resonance. Moses doesn’t even say, “Let my people go.”

“Top Five”

Susan Granger’s review of “Top Five” (Paramount Pictures/FilmNation)

 

Chris Rock offers a glimpse of life in the celebrity bubble, playing comedian-turned-actor Andre Allen, who agrees to a day-long interview with a New York Times journalist, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson).

Stand-up comic Allen found fame and fortune starring in a trilogy of dumb “Hammy the Bear” movies in which he played the ursine partner of a human policeman.

A recovering alcoholic trying to stay sober, he’s embarked on two mid-life endeavors. Determined to be recognized as a serious artist, he’s opening a serious, historical drama “Uprize!” about a 1791 Haitian slave rebellion (which the Times has already panned) and he’s also celebrating his upcoming wedding to beautiful Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a shallow reality-TV star.

As Andre and Chelsea walk-and-talk, they learn a great deal about each other, particularly when they encounter his dad (Ben Vereen) in the neighborhood where he grew up. That’s punctuated by hilarious cameos from Kevin Hart, JB Smoove, Tracy Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld and Cedric the Entertainer.

As writer-director, Chris Rock’s characters are grounded in reality and his revelatory concept is ambitious, filled with pop-culture references and observations about a black man in a predominantly white business. To his credit, it’s far better than Rock’s two previous helming projects: “Head of State” and “I Think I Love My Wife.”

Obviously influenced by Woody Allen, there are suitable nods to “Annie Hall” and “Stardust Memories.” Nevertheless, the humor remains superficially sketch-like, including the rankings of the all-time greatest hip-hop artists that inspired the film’s title.

In a recent interview, Rock observed, “I don’t think the world expected things to change overnight because Obama got elected President. Of course, it’s changed, though; it’s just changed with kids.” Today, African-American youngsters believe they can be who they want to be, even President.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Top Five” is a raunchy, savvy 7, revealing a social satirist adroitly balancing bawdy abrasiveness with the awareness of a black man blindsided by his own success.

“Penguins of Madagascar”

Susan Granger’s review of “Penguins of Madagascar” (20th Century-Fox/DreamWorks Animation)

You don’t need to have seen the first three animated “Madagascar” movies to appreciate this spinoff because it works entirely on its own.

The origin story shows how the early antics of the self-appointed leader Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), clever Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller), Cheezy Dibble-gobbling Rico (voiced by Conrad Vernon) and the little hatchling Private (voiced by Christopher Knight) were recorded in the Antarctic by a documentarian (voiced by Werner Herzog) who wanted to observe the flightless birds in their natural habitat.

Their nemesis is Dr. Octavius Brine – a.k.a. Dave (voiced by John Malkovich) – a villainous octopus disguised as an eccentric scientist. He’s resentful of penguins because they perennially outperform other aquatic creatures, like his octopus brethren, at zoos, aquariums and marine parks.  Brine leads an eight-armed octopus army determined to kidnap the waddling penguins and turn them into dreadful mutants.

Aid comes from Agent Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a grey wolf from an undercover task force called North Wind. He’s supported by Short Fuse (voiced by Ken Jeong), an explosives-expert seal; Eva (voiced by Annet Mehendru), a beautiful, brainy owl; and Corporal (voiced by Peter Stormare), a brawny polar bear.

Screenwriters John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer dish out celebrity name puns, like “Nicolas – cage them!” and “Drew, Barry – more power!” Along with a life lesson:  “If I’ve learned anything on this delightful adventure,” Skipper concludes. “It’s that looks don’t matter. It’s what you do that counts.”

Co-directed by Eric Darnell (“Madagascar”) and Simon J. Smith (“Bee Movie”), it careens from Antarctica to Venice to Shanghai to Kentucky’s Fort Knox to New York – in a fast-paced, globe-trotting frenzy.

The extra 3-D surcharge seems superfluous, although the animation is flashy and flawless. And if you want more of the peppy penguins, catch their Nickelodeon cartoon series, set in an alternate timeline to avoid conflicts with the big-screen franchise.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Penguins of Madagascar” is a subtle yet silly 6 with enough frivolity to amuse its intended small-fry audience.

“Horrible Bosses 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Horrible Bosses 2” (Warner Bros.)

 

Qualifying as one of the most idiotic, unnecessary sequels of the year, this action-comedy caper reunites Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, as the three beleaguered underlings who decided to kill their bosses in the raunchy original, released in 2011.

It’s a shame that they didn’t also bring back director Seth Gordon and screenwriters Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein. Instead director Sean Anders partners with co-writer John Morris on what plays like a variation of O. Henry’s classic “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Previous Anders/Morris collaborations include “Dumb and Dumber To,” “We’re the Millers” and “Hot Tub Time Machine.”

Tired of working for oppressive supervisors, Nick Hendrick (Bateman), Kurt Buckman (Sudeikis) and Dale Arbus (Day) have formed their own company built around a self-shampooing shower head invention called Shower Buddy. But they need a wealthy investor to manufacture and distribute their product. He appears in the form of formidable CEO Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz), who offers to bankroll their first 100,000 units for $3 million, only to back out of the deal and try to steal their business.

“I make new enemies every day,” Hanson explains. “It’s called business.”

With no legal recourse, Nick, Kurt and Dale decide to kidnap Hanson’s pompous playboy son Rex (Chris Pine), demanding $500,000 ransom, only to discover that Rex, who is a compulsive liar, hates his dad as much as they do.  Once again, they seek advice from seedy characters played by Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey. And Jennifer Aniston reprises Dr. Julia Harris, the sexually rapacious dentist.

Problem is: it’s not funny.  Director Sean Anders obviously encouraged the actors to ad-lib, improvise and screech. As a result, much of the misogynistic dialogue is cringe-worthy, particularly the barrage of tasteless jokes about rape and race. And it all leads up to a formulaic car-chase finale.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Horrible Bosses 2” is a revenge fantasy 3, trolling for cheap, vulgar laughs.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” (Lionsgate)

 

How often have you heard movie-goers complain that parts of their favorite book were cut in the movie version? That’s not true of this third installment in the dystopian action adventure.

Every grim detail of Suzanne Collins’ final book in her best-selling YA trilogy has been faithfully rendered by new-to-the-series screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong – in order to pad it out until next year’s conclusion.

Having been rescued from her second Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell, by a rebel alliance, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is sequestered in District 13’s subterranean hideout.  Her home, District 12, has been reduced to rubble, although her beloved little sister Prim (Willow Shields) and mother escaped.

Led by steely-eyed, ambitious President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and the former gamemaker-turned-advisor, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died while “Mockingjay” was in production), the insurgency is preparing to liberate Panem’s Capitol from vicious, oppressive President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). And brave, bow-wielding Katniss becomes their symbolic Mockingjay, the defiant figurehead of the revolution.

“Revolutions are like fires: they need to be nurtured,” explains Plutarch.

Cloaked in a drab, funeral pallor, there are few battle sequences and none of the glitzy costume changes of “Catching Fire,” although ever-chirpy Effie Trinket (Elisabeth Banks) tries her best. Instead, director Francis Lawrence concentrates on feisty Katniss’ inner turmoil, as she’s torn between loyal Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and her confidante/partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who is being held captive.  Plus there are preparations for the climactic battle between the two contending forces.

Woody Harrelson is back as Katniss’ alcoholic mentor Haymitch Abernathy, as is Sam Clafin as her District 4 friend Finnick Odair and Stanley Tucci as TV inquisitor Caesar Flickerman. New to the cast are Natalie Dormer (TV’s “Game of Thrones”) as media director Cressida with Wes Chatham and Eden Henson as her cameramen, Castor and Pollux.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” is a dour, dreary, disappointing 5, milking every last dime out of the franchise’s devoted following.

 

“The River”

Susan Granger’s review of “The River” (Circle in the Square 2014-2015 season)

 

Without Hugh Jackman, Jez Butterworth’s murky new play might run in a tiny off-Broadway theater for, perhaps, two weeks. Because Jackman’s charisma is what keeps it afloat, particularly given the intimacy of Circle in the Square, where audience members have an up-close-and-personal connection.

Jackson plays an intense, unnamed Man who is obsessed with finding love and fly-fishing.  To that end, he has brought a Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his isolated cabin on the banks of a river to join him on a very special, moonless, late-summer night when the sea trout are running.  Despite his romantic entreaties, she’s peevishly reluctant, yet she agrees to accompany him, only to slip away in the dark. Enter the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), a mysterious presence from the past who complicates matters in the present.  Love – it appears – is as elusive as the silvery trout that the Man envisions.

Playwright Jez Butterworth scored big with the cryptic tragicomedy “Jerusalem” back in 2009, so this 85-minute lyrical meditation on the tenuousness of love seems trivial in comparison. And since it’s so realistically staged by director Ian Rickson, including the Man’s gutting and stuffing a fresh fish, the narrative flights of fancy – quotations from the poetry of Ted Hughes and William Butler Yeats – seem even more stilted and artificial, along with the symbolic Celtic imagery. What’s missing is a sense of mystery and, perhaps, menace – which would have made it far more compelling.

The open-sided setting designed by Ultz is interesting with lighting by designer Charles Balfour and intriguing night sounds by Ian Dickinson of the Autograph design team.

Jez Butterworth splits his time between stage and screen. This year he also wrote the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” with his brother John Henry, along with Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow.”

FYI: While ardent Jackman fans are told to shut off (not just silence) their cellphones and cameras during the performance, they’re given ample opportunity to snap away when the genial, gracious actor comes forth to do an AIDS charity pitch for Broadway Cares after the curtain calls.

“The River” will run at Circle in the Square through February 8, 2015.