“Florence Foster Jenkins”

Susan Granger’s review of “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Paramount Pictures)

 

The 1940s was a kinder, gentler era – a time when a generous, good-hearted, if delusional diva packed Manhattan’s famed Carnegie Hall and people cheered as she enthusiastically sang off-key.

Socialite heiress Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) truly believed she was a gifted opera singer. The coloratura soprano she heard in her head was sublime; the reality that her excruciating voice quavered never deterred her in the slightest.

Employing Metropolitan Opera conductor Carlo Edwards (David Haig) as her vocal coach, she endowed New York’s Verdi Club, where adoring audiences encouraged her screeching.

If she could not achieve acclaim, she could buy it – with the help of her dedicated husband/manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and loyal, long-suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).

“Music matters: it is my life,” declares Jenkins, who contracted syphilis from her first husband on their wedding night, necessitating celibacy in her subsequent marriage to Bayfield, a failed Shakespearean actor.

But, in 1944, when Madame Florence insisted on giving a public concert, distributing 1,000 free tickets to U.S. servicemen, Bayfield realized that her illusions would inevitably be shattered.

Wearing a fat suit, bedecked with pearls, feathers and gossamer angel wings, Meryl Streep transcends grotesquerie, eliciting empathy by embodying often-imperious, yet emotionally fragile Florence with sensitive respect and heartbreaking understanding.

Energetically at her side, Hugh Grant embodies indulgent devotion within their complicated marital ‘arrangement’ which discreetly includes his own Brooklyn apartment and mistress (Rebecca Ferguson).

Along with their outstanding ensemble, screenwriter Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears rely on production designer Alan McDonald and costumer Consolata Boyle for period authenticity.

After warbling in “Ricky and the Flash,” “Mamma Mia!” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” it’s not surprising that Meryl Streep does her own singing; it takes true artistry to sound that awful.

(French filmmaker Xavier Giannoli recently fictionalized a similar story, “Marguerite,” set in the 1920s.)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a tragi-comic, sentimental 7, a poignant celebration of indulged eccentricity and pursuing your dreams.

07

“Nerve”

Susan Granger’s review of “Nerve” (Lionsgate)

 

Playing on the ubiquitous prevalence of the Pokemon Go phenomenon, along with the popularity of horror films, the directing team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”) came up with this teen-oriented cyber-thriller.

On New York’s Staten Island, Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) is a timid high-school senior living with her over-protective, single mother (Juliette Lewis). Knowing Vee’s desire for enough money to go California Institute for the Arts, her BFF Sydney (Emily Meade) introduces her to Nerve, a (fictional) live-stream smartphone game of dares.

This is the way it works: you download an app, then choose whether to be a Player or a Watcher. As voyeurs, Watchers suggest dares and there are cash prizes awarded to Players who participate. The riskier the dare, the more Watchers a Player get – and the bigger the payout.

It’s on-line gaming with a contrived, reality-show twist.

Naïve Vee’s first dare (as shown in the theatrical trailer) is to kiss a total stranger in public. Her chosen guy turns out to be Ian (Dave Franco). Since they immediately attract attention as a cute couple, Vee is paired up with Ian, and he happens to be a Player who’s up for some daredevil challenges in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Vee’s computer hacker buddy Tommy (Miles Heizer) and increasingly jealous Sydney are observing from the sidelines with growing apprehension as danger lurks in the increasingly perilous stunts – like riding a motorcycle while blindfolded.

Adapted by jargon-savvy Jessica Sharzer (“American Horror Story”) from Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 YA novel of the same name, it’s filled with adrenaline-charged stunts, adroitly chronicled by cinematographer Michael Simmonds.

It’s a shame that 25 year-old Roberts and 31 year-old Franco appear much too mature to pass as teens – and that the late-in-coming caution about the seductiveness of Internet anonymity gets lost.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nerve” is a socially conscious 6, appealing to media-obsessed Millennials who may not heed the warning and just find the sinister surveillance idea exciting.

06

“Ice Age: Collision Course”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ice Age: Collision Course” (Blue Sky Studio/20th Century-Fox)

 

Unless you’re truly desperate to get the kids out of the house and into an air-conditioned theater, forget about this fifth installment in the animated franchise, which seems headed for its own extinction.

It begins, as usual, with a Paleolithic prologue in which Scrat the neurotic Squirrel is chasing that elusive acorn. But, this time, he discovers a frozen UFO and catapults into space, inadvertently sending a huge, destructive asteroid hurtling toward Earth.

That spurs the perpetually bickering Wooly Mammoth family – Manny (voiced by Ray Romano), his wife Ellie (voiced by Queen Latifah), and grown-daughter Peaches (voiced by Keke Palmer), along with her betrothed Julian (voiced by Adam Devine) – into action, propelled by their old friend Buck the weasel (voiced by Simon Pegg), who has a clever plan to avert the inevitable catastrophe.

Also on-board are Sid the sloth (voiced by John Leguizamo), his sassy Granny (voiced by Wanda Sykes) and the saber-tooth tigers, Diego (voiced by Denis Leary) and his wife Shira (voiced by Jennifer Lopez).

There’s a cameo by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as scientist Neil deBuck Weasel and a yoga-loving guru, Shangri Llama (voiced by Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who dabbles in crystals, plus a trio of “dino-birds” whose leader is voiced by Nick Offerman.

It quickly becomes obvious that screenwriters Michael Wilson, Michael Berg and Yoni Brenner have run out of original ideas and are now into re-cycle mode, rhyming words with “duty,” “poop” and “butt,” giving co-directors Mike Thurmeier and Galen T. Chu little substance and an overabundance of tiresome characters to work with.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ice Age: Collision Course” is a colorful but tepid 3, making one wish for a cataclysmic disaster to melt all of them.

03

“Lights Out”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lights Out” (Warner Bros./New Line Cinema)

 

The most important question about a horror film is: does it scare you?

That’s what propels this terror tale about a demonic ghoul that lurks in the dark, triggering a common phobia about things that go bump in the night.

In downtown Los Angeles, rebellious twentysomething Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) dwells in a dingy apartment above a tattoo parlor with a red neon light blinking all night.

She has commitment issues with her boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), but she’s devoted to her 10 year-old stepbrother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who, traumatized after the violent death of his father (Billy Burke), has been left to contend with their edgy, tormented mother, Sophie (Maria Bello).

It seems Mom has a very jealous, ghostly companion, Diana (stunt specialist Alicia Vela-Bailey), a deceased frenemy from her teenage stay in a mental institution.

When she was alive, Diana suffered from a rare skin condition that made her hyper-sensitive to light; as a result, this hideous, malevolent spirit with long, sharp fingernails only appears in the dark.

Working from Eric Heisserer’s expanded screenplay and confined to a budget of just $5 million, Swedish director David F. Sandberg never explains too much, while cinematographer Marc Spicer’s dim, blue-black lighting heightens the inherent tension.

There are eerie, flickering lamps, remote-controlled car headlights, unexpectedly loud noises and jump-scares galore but, in the hands of credibly competent actors, sometimes the simplest concepts resonate the strongest, like in “The Babadook.”

Previous to this feature film, Sandberg made two-and-a-half-minute YouTube video, utilizing the same netherworld gimmick. When the video went viral in 2013, it attracted the attention of producer James Wan (“Saw,” “Insidious,” “The Conjuring”), who has now assigned Sandberg to direct “Annabelle 2.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lights Out” is a shady, sinister 6, a spooky, supernatural story.

06

“A Man Like You”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Man Like You” (IATI Theater-Off-Broadway, July, 2016)

 

Inspired by the real Somali terrorist attack at the Westgate Shopping Mall on September 21, 2013, Kenyan-born playwright Silvia Cassini envisions a conversation between a British hostage, diplomat Patrick North (Matthew Stannah), and his radicalized Al Shabaab captor Abdi (Jeffrey Marc) in a windowless concrete room in Somalia.

Meanwhile, North’s wife Elizabeth (Jenny Boote) provides a monologue counter-point from their home in Nairobi, relating plans for diplomacy that will lead to his negotiated rescue by the military.

During North’s 102 days of imprisonment, they discuss different practical and political points-of-view: who is a really terrorist and who is a martyr, what is good and what is evil, and the nature of a deity called God.

Abdi tells North he’s been targeted as a pawn and his life is no more than “a bargaining chip,” while Abdi’s cohort/enforcer Hassan (Andrew Clarke) ominously holds an AK-47.

Staged by director Yudelka Heyer, it’s a talky interrogation and, as such, more intellectually provocative than emotionally engaging. Yet it does present a psychological insight, along with a rarely-discussed rationale for these terrorist attacks.

As voiced by Abdi, his rationale is reminiscent of the Somali pirate played by Barkhad Abdi who commandeered Tom Hanks’ cargo ship in the movie “Captain Phillips.”

“A Man Like You” premiered in Nairobi earlier this year and has been imported to the New York theater scene by RED Soil, an African/Caribbean-inspired theater/film company, founded by Matthew Stannah (Nairobi, Kenya) and Yudelka Heyer (Dominican Republic). RED Soil’s purpose is to showcase new, innovative work that brings about new waves to share vivid stories, often untold, in which struggle and pain are depicted.

“A Man Like You” runs from July 13 to July 31 at the IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street. For tickets, visit BrownPaperTickets.com, call 800-838-3006 or ticket directly at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2554996

“Absolutely Fabulous”

Susan Granger’s review of “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

On BBC-TV, off-and-on from 1992 to 2004, the cult sitcom “Absolutely Fabulous” was just that. As a full-length feature film, it’s only fair.

First of all, you’ve got to know who’s who and what’s what in order to understand anything. Otherwise, it’s like coming into the middle of a stranger’s glitzy party, knowing no one.

The plot revolves around the misadventures of two bawdy, Bollinger-boozing, middle-aged fashionistas. Enlisting the help of her BFF Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), British publicist Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) is determined to sign a new client: supermodel Kate Moss.

Edina lives in a palatial West London house which she shares with her elderly mother (90 year old June Whitfield), her prim, now-divorced daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) and 13 year-old grand-daughter Lola (model Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness).

With Edina’s personal assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks) overpaying herself, times are tough. Her roster has dwindled to only two clients: singer Lulu and “Spice Girl” Emma Bunton. And no one wants to publish her memoir. So snagging Kate Moss is of utmost importance.

Predictably, everything goes wrong at the splashy launch party for designer Huki Muki (Janette Tough, a.k.a. Janet Krankie), forcing them to flee to the glittering, glamorous French Riviera, perhaps forever.

Saddled with little originality, screenwriter Jennifer Saunders and director Mandie Fletcher rely on campy vulgarity and lots of starry, self-reverential cameos, including Jerry Hall, Joan Collins, Rebel Wilson, Dame Edna (Barry Humphries), Stella McCartney, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Chris Colfer and John Hamm, who confesses he lost his virginity at age 15 to Patsy.

If you manage to stay through the final credits, you’re told you can now go back to watching kitten videos.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” is farcical 5. It’s frothy but far from fabulous.

05

“The Invisible Hand”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Invisible Hand” (Westport Country Playhouse: July, 2016)

 

During the summer’s heat, Artistic Director Mark Lamos took a gamble – challenging audiences to think about the geopolitical roots of Islamic terrorism – and I suspect it will pay off handsomely.

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s riveting thriller begins as Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), a Citibank executive, sits, handcuffed, in a jail cell in Pakistan. He was abducted by mistake by Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), a militant Muslim who really intended to capture his boss.

Bright knows he has to convince his captors to keep him alive, so he’s already advised his guard Dar (Jameal Ali) to stockpile potatoes until the price goes up, then sell them, making a sizeable profit, particularly when he exchanges rupees for dollars.

The terrorists’ leader, Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), is demanding a $10 million ransom, which Nick knows won’t be paid. Instead, Nick proposes to use the $3 million he’s stashed in a Cayman Islands account to earn a reduced ransom through strategic futures trading – with Bashir handling the intricate maneuvers on a laptop.

“Making money is intoxicating,” Nick warns, as Bashir’s greed grows.

“Everyone’s self-interest works to check everyone else’s,” Nick explains, referring to the “Invisible Hand” title, a term coined by economist Adam Smith in his 1776 book, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.”

As a Muslim-American and Pakistani-American, playwright Ayad Akhtar utilizes each of the four characters to delineate various practical and political points-of-view. As a result, the result is more intellectually provocative than emotionally engaging.

While director David Kennedy adroitly stages this talky, yet timely, confrontational exchange of ideas, the drama is ominously punctuated by far too many disconcerting blackouts and the roar of U.S. drones hovering outside.

Its authenticity is augmented by Adam Rigg’s simple set design, Matthew Richards’ lighting, Fitz Patton’s sound, and Emily Rebholz’s costumes.

In support of this production, which runs until Aug. 6, the Playhouse is hosting a series of free, community engagement speakers and discussions. For a schedule and more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at 203-227-4177.

 

“Our Little Sister”

Susan Granger’s review of “Our Little Sister” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Based on Akimi Yoshida’s popular graphic novel “Umimachi Diary,” Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows,” “I Wish,” “Like Father, Like Son”) has created a wistful, episodic melodrama about families.

When the three twentysomething Koda sisters – Sachi, Yoshino and Chika – travel north to Yamagata for the funeral of their estranged father, they discover that they have a teenage half-sister (Suzu Hirose) from his second marriage.

Impulsively, Sachi invites shy, soccer-loving Suzu to come live with them in their late grandmother’s dilapidated family house in Kamakura, a small, seaside town, south of Tokyo.

Ever since their mother (Shinobu Ohtake) deserted them, dutiful Sachi has been the matriarch; a dedicated nurse, she’s having an affair with a married pediatrician at the local hospital.

The middle sister, Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), is a hard-partying bank clerk, while kooky, amiable Chika (Kaho) works in a sporting-goods store, flirting with a mountaineering co-worker who lost six toes climbing Mt. Everest.

In addition to the sisters’ romantic angst, there are many culinary interludes, including catching and preparing freshly-caught seafood, along with the multi-generational ritual of making plum wine using fruit harvested from an old tree in their yard.

As seasons pass over the course of a year, the kind and generous sisters bond, relating to each other in different ways, coping with a cantankerous great-aunt, marveling at a fireworks display and relishing the traditional pink cherry blossoms.

As this gradual intertwining occurs, it affectionately reinforces their grandmother’s oft-quoted belief that “every living thing takes time and effort.”

In Japanese with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Our Little Sister” is a slight, serene, sweet 6; it’s a subtle, calming interlude.

06

“Star Trek: Beyond”

Susan Granger’s review of “Star Trek: Beyond” (Paramount Pictures)

 

‘Back in the 1960s, I became an avid fan of Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi TV series, which not only boldly explored new worlds but also set forth challenging concepts, tackling relevant social issues with philosophical ingenuity and inventive diplomacy.

Yes, the sets were tacky but provocative ideas and redemptive life-lessons flourished.

Several movie franchises continued in that vein but, under the stewardship of J.J. Abrams, character complexity has become secondary to continual conflict and spectacle, sacrificing much of the emotional satisfaction.

There’s Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), along with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and Pavel Chekhov (the late Anton Yelchin, who tragically died at age 27).

They’re all on-board as this installment begins in the enormous Yorktown Spaceport. Three years into their five-year tour, they embark on a rescue mission that leads them through a dangerous, uncharted nebula.

After the Enterprise is disabled by an evil enemy, reptilian megalomaniac Krall (Idris Elba), the crew is stranded on the alien planet Altamid, where they’re befriended by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a vengeful, rebel warrior who has taken up residence inside a shipwrecked, century-old Federation vessel.

It’s generically scripted by Simon Pegg (who plays chief engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott) and Don Jung and formulaically directed by noise-and-action obsessed Justin Lin (“Fast & Furious”).

Unfortunately, the narrative quest for a powerful artifact is diluted by far too many frantic skirmishes, quick edits and vertiginous CGI battles, including one in which multiple Kirks ride multiple motorcycles.

Thankfully, ever-logical Spock and grumpy, acerbic Bones still banter so actors Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban deliver much-needed comedy relief, along with the timely use of the Beastie Boys’ song “Sabotage.” Plus there’s a fleeting moment of nostalgia, a glimpse of the seven original Starfleet crew.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Star Trek: Beyond” is an explosive, shoot ‘em up 7. Although there’s too much hardware and too little heart on this voyage, the franchise should “Live long and prosper.”

07

“The Innocents”

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

 

In Warsaw, Poland, after the Soviet Union defeated Hitler’s Germany in W.W. II, it’s estimated that the occupying Russian troops raped 500,000 women and about 100,000 of them subsequently committed suicide.

Working with several credited writers, director Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel,” “Gemma Bovary”) was inspired by the true story of Madeline Pauliac, a French doctor and Resistance fighter, who helped a group of Polish nuns, most of them virgins, who were convinced that their ordeal has doomed them to eternal damnation.

Their story begins in December, 1945, when Teresa (Eliza Rycembel), a novice Benedictine nun, begs French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage) for assistance.

Returning to the convent, she is severely reprimanded by the steely Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) and French-speaking Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) for revealing their shameful secret to a stranger.

As the psychological drama unfolds, Dr. Beaulieu learns that, on three separate occasions, Russian soldiers brutally raped the nuns, leaving six of them and one novice pregnant.

Since their behavior is dictated by the strict rituals of their order, this insular religious community has become devastated not only by the atrocities but also by repercussions that might tarnish the convent’s reputation.

And once, when driving back to the Red Cross base through the snow-covered forest, Dr. Beaulieu is ominously accosted at a Soviet checkpoint.

Dr. Beauliu’s life is further complicated by her relationship with Dr. Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jewish physician whose parents died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He ends up assisting the hesitant nuns who are under oath not to allow their bodies to be exposed or touched.

Working with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, Fontaine displays incredible sensitivity to the scandalous situation, particularly the anguish of Mother Superior’s syphilis and Sister Maria’s intricate worldliness (she wasn’t a virgin when she took her vow of chastity).

In French, Russian and Polish with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Innocents” is a starkly desolate, yet compassionate 7 with timely relevance for women today.

07