“A Bigger Splash”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Bigger Splash” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

After rock superstar Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) undergoes vocal-cord surgery and is forbidden to talk during the healing process, she and her younger filmmaker lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), hide away in an idyllic villa on Pantelleria, a volcanic island on the strait of Sicily, not far from Tunisia.

They’re first glimpsed blissfully sun-bathing naked by the tiled pool. Suddenly, a mutual friend, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), arrives unexpectedly, along with his newly-discovered, nubile daughter, Penny (Dakota Johnson). Harry’s an ebullient, often obnoxious music producer who was once Marianne’s lover and introduced her to Paul.

Now, he’s determined to reclaim her affections, disruptively insisting they dine at a quaint, picturesque restaurant known only to locals but overcrowded due to the upcoming Feast of San Gennaro.

As the dynamic backstory of this steamy foursome is gradually revealed through inference and innuendo in flashbacks, they sexually tease and deviously torment one another, casually indulging in wanton coupling and full-frontal nudity.

Loosely based on Jacques Deray’s “La Piscine” (“The Swimming Pool”), the erotic melodrama has been adapted by David Kajganich, who injects a tenuous subplot about illegal Tunisian immigrants.

It’s subtly directed by Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”), who meticulously delineates each of the four characters, utilizing Marianne’s inability to speak as a metaphor for repressed emotions and guilty secrets.

Tilda Swinton’s angular, androgynous beauty is amplified by her haughty demeanor and languid, Euro-chic attire – in stark contrast with Lolita-like Dakota Johnson’s see-through tops and sultry shorts.

Handsome Matthias Schoenaerts is suitably disdainful, as uninhibited Ralph Fiennes steals the show with an impromptu dance to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.”

FYI: Implying some great emotional moment, the title refers to an enigmatic 1967 David Hockney painting, showing a foaming wake in a swimming pool under a blue sky.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Bigger Splash” is a seductive, sensual 7, a slippery psycho-sexual thriller for adult audiences.

07

 

Susan Granger’s review of “Sing Street” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Set in Dublin during the economic depression of the mid-1980s, this is a sensitive, perceptive coming-of-age fable by Irish writer/director John Carney is the third in his trilogy of engaging, music-themed, semi-autobiographical films, following “Once” and “Begin Again.”

When his perpetually bickering, financially-strapped parents (Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) transfer idealistic, 15 year-old Connor Lalor (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) to a tuition-free Christian Brothers Catholic school, he’s brutally set upon by the local bully and the creepy head-master.

As an emotional escape and to impress an ambitious girl, Conor decides to form a futuristic New Wave pop band called Sing Street, riffing on the derelict Synge Street location of the school, recruiting keyboardist Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), multi-instrumentalist/composer Eamon (Mark McKenna) and business-savvy Darren (Ben Carolan).

Amid derision and scorn, he’s befriended by the object of his affections, beguiling 17 year-old Raphina (Lucy Bounton), who lives in a nearby group home for orphaned girls and yearns to escape to London to become a model. A Sing Street music video would be just the ticket!

As his spontaneous schoolboy quintet takes shape, he’s also supported by his perpetually stoned, music-wise older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), who inspires him with Duran Duran’s music video “Rio.” It’s significant that – in the closing credits – the film is dedicated to “brothers.”

Wearing flamboyant costumes and Boy George make-up, the adolescent band plays British pop. While avid music enthusiasts have told me that some of the band’s choices are a year or two out-of-sync with the time frame, the modest concept is great fun.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sing Street” is an energetic, enjoyable 8 – nostalgic music to your ears.

08

 

“The Congressman”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Congressman” (Shadow Distribution)

 

This timely, gently satirical tale of a disillusioned politician coping with a public relations fiasco as he goes through a mid-life crisis is too tepid to ignite much excitement.

A recently divorced Vietnam vet with a drinking problem, U.S. Congressman Charlie Winship (Treat Williams) often puts his feet up on his desk, remaining seated during the recitation of Pledge of Allegiance on the House floor each morning.

One day, he’s surreptitiously caught on video, igniting a nasty media-driven controversy. That’s amplified when, facing a demonstration by his constituents, Charlie explains that the Pledge was created, not by the Founding Fathers, but by Frank Bellamy, a socialist Christian minister, in 1892. For years, as children recited it, they raised their arms in a Nazi-like salute.

To complicate matters, Charlie’s ambitious Chief of Staff, Jared Barnes (Ryan Merriman), is secretly collaborating with a conniving lobbyist (George Hamilton) to usurp Charlie’s job.

Meanwhile, back in Charlie’s home state of Maine, there’s an ominous off-shore crisis as the livelihood of a remote fishing community is threatened by corporate fisheries.

When they visit beleaguered Catatonk Island, Charlie is befriended by local librarian Rae Blanchard (Elizabeth Marvel), who invites him home for a lobster dinner, while Jared learns more about lobster fishing – and himself.

Working with director Jared Martin, writer/co-director Robert Mrazek utilizes his own experience, representing a Long Island, New York, congressional district for a decade before retiring from the House of Representatives in 1993 at age 48.

Mrazek was intrigued by the contrast between the partisanship in Washington today – epitomized by Congress’s inability to compromise – and the culture on the island, where about 75 people live year-round. Whether or not they like one another, they know they have to work together to survive.

Unfortunately, Mrazek’s cinematic inexperience results in formulaic plotting and stilted dialogue, which dilutes the dazzling visual charm of Monhegan Island.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Congressman” is a schmaltzy 6, simplistic and sincere, “slowing down to the rhythm of the sea.”

06

“The Meddler”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Meddler” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

While writer/director Lorene Scafaria may have based this dramedy on her own overbearing mother, she misses far too many many chances for inspiration and insight.

Recently widowed Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon), a Brooklyn native, has moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles to be near her 30-something daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a perplexed, perpetually pouting TV writer who was recently dumped by her boyfriend Jason (Jason Ritter).

Marnie is well-off financially and she loves her new apartment, conveniently situated near The Grove, which she aptly compares to Disneyland’s Main Street. But she’s lonely. So she calls and texts Lori incessantly – until Lori says, “I think it’s time we set some boundaries.”

Undaunted, good-hearted Marnie starts befriending strangers – like the ambitious lad (Jerrod Carmichael) at the Apple Store, Lori’s pal (Cecily Strong) who yearns for an elaborate lesbian wedding, and a retired cop (J.K. Simmons) whom she meets when she inadvertently strolls into the filming of a movie scene.

If Lorene Scafaria had made this into a sitcom, it might have worked better because it’s far too shallow and contrived to work as a feature film.

Susan Sarandon is Scafaria’s saving-grace. Her Marnie is so kind, loving and generous that it’s difficult not to succumb to her maternal charm. On the other hand Rose Bryne’s weepy Lori is so self-absorbed that it’s hard to elicit any sympathy for her trials and tribulations.

In supporting roles, J.K. Simmons seems to be channeling Sam Elliott, while Amy Landecker’s therapist emerges as simply annoying.

Curiously, the most effective scene is when Marnie is alone in her kitchen. Using the rim of a glass, she presses a hole in the center of a slice of bread. Placing it in a heated skillet, she cracks a farm-fresh egg into the center of the hole, cooks the egg to perfection and then slowly, lasciviously consumes it.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Meddler” is an intrusive 4, totally lacking in empathetic spontaneity.

04

“The Nice Guys”

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

 

The summer season is underway with this deranged, depraved and dead-on tale of a bumbling private investigator and a gonzo enforcer making mayhem in Los Angeles.

It begins in 1978 with a horrific car crash in which porn star Misty Mountains is killed. Or is she? Her distraught aunt doubts it – and she wants answers. Then there’s this mysterious missing girl named Amelia. Is there any connection between them?

That’s the question plaguing private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and hard-boiled tough-guy Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). Their unconventional investigation leads them to a splashy Tinseltown pool party, replete with mermaids and dance music by Earth, Wind & Fire.

That’s where they not only find Amelia (Margaret Qualley), an ardent environmentalist, but also discover a high-level corporate conspiracy.

Which leads them to Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), who heads the California Department of Justice, and her assistant Tally (Yaya DaCosta). Plus, there’s John Boy (Matt Bomer), an enigmatic hit-man/fixer and a climactic confrontation at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

As pragmatic, principled Healy and sleazy, boozing March, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play off each other perfectly, particularly when they’re interacting with March’s precocious teenage daughter, Holly (Aussie newcomer Angourie Rice), who is determined not only to keep her disheveled dad on-track but also participate in the rollicking crime caper.

Once writer/director Shane Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi get the fast-paced, action-packed comedy in gear, there’s no holding back on the wacky situations and dastardly villains.

FYI: Margaret Qualley is the real-life daughter of Andie MacDowell and Paul Qualley. Her fresh-faced naturalness is in stark contrast with Kim Basinger, who is now so Botox’d that her facial features are totally frozen; only her lips move.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Nice Guys” is a skewed, subversive 7, filled with unpredictable chaos and wickedly clever confusion.

07

“The Man Who Knew Infinity”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (Edward R. Pressman Films)

 

As the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, engaging actor Dev Patel snags his first meaty role since “Slumdog Millionaire” and the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” comedies.

A self-educated clerk from a poor Brahmin family, Ramanujan overcame incredible odds to inform the later work of Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”) and Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game”).

Although writer/director Matt Brown strikes a more conventional key than those previous biopics, he nevertheless weaves a compelling tale of passion and perseverance.

Ramanujan’s story begins in 1913 in Madras, where his shipping-house employer suggests he send his complex mathematical theorems to Professor G. M. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) in Cambridge. Encouraged by colleague John Littlewood (Toby Jones), Hardy dispatches an invitation to England.

Defying tradition, timid yet intense Ramanujan leaves his overly-possessive mother and devoted young wife, traveling 6,000 miles to Trinity College, where he faces not only academic derision but also racial discrimination as clubby faculty members refer to him disdainfully as “Gunga Din.”

A vegetarian, Ramanujan can’t eat the food served in the dorms, so he cooks soups in the fireplace in his quarters, a task that grows increasingly challenging with wartime rationing.  Not surprisingly, his health begins to deteriorate.

Intellectually bonding through discussions of primes and partitions, Ramanujan and Hardy have vastly different approaches to their discipline. A devout Hindu, Ramanujan believes his intuitive knowledge is a gift from God, while pragmatic, atheistic Hardy demands rigorous “proofs” to substantiate the spontaneously scribbled calculations.

Confident in his remarkable ability, Dev Patel conveys Ramanujan’s courteous, yet purposeful determination, in contrast with Jeremy Irons’ socially inept, coldly imperious Hardy. Together, they rise above the bigotry of the Cambridge establishment, launching Ramanujan as the first Indian Fellow at Trinity and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

FYI: 1729 has become the Hardy-Ramanujan number, the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a spiritual 7, engaging the heart as well as the mind.

07

“Money Monster”

Susan Granger’s review of “Money Monster” (Sony/TriStar)

 

If you’re tired of watching superheroes do comic-book stunts, invest in this intriguing new thriller. Directed by Jodie Foster, it’s taut, tantalizing and timely.

Financial guru/cable show host Lee Gates (George Clooney) bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money.” Flanked by hip-hop backup dancers, he hands out stock tips, accompanied by silly sound effects.

Fed up with his self-promoting shenanigans, Lee’s long-suffering director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) is ready to take another job across town.

When Ibis Clear Capital, a company Gates has heavily hyped, takes a nosedive, losing $800 million, and its globe-trotting CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) abruptly cancels an appearance, Ibis’s corporate communications officer, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), attempts to explain the anomaly, “a computer glitch,” via satellite.

Suddenly, the broadcast is commandeered by gun-toting Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), who snuck into the Manhattan studio posing as a deliveryman. Taking Lee and his crew hostage, Budwell hijacks the show, forcing fast-talking Lee into an explosive-packed vest, keeping the switch clutched in his hand.

Budwell just lost all his money – $60,000 – on Ibis.  Harking back to the outrage of Sidney Lumet’s “Network” (1976), Budwell is “mad as hell” and wants an explanation.

Working from a humorous, if somewhat contrived screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf, director Jodie Foster astutely acknowledges the ticking clock while slyly delving into the characters’ complexity, particularly Clooney’s cocky, caustic TV pundit who realizes that he’s become a puppet in a rigged game.

Confined to the control booth most of the time, whispering into terrified Lee’s ear piece, Julia Roberts is compelling as the film’s moral compass, while the duplicity unravels in real time. Their love/hate chemistry is clearly reminiscent of Jeff Daniels/Emily Mortimer’s in TV’s “Newsroom.”

Foster’s stalwart supporting cast includes Emily Meade, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Condola Rashad and Lenny Venito.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Money Monster” is an edgy, exciting 8, made even more relevant by Wall Street’s computerized algorithms and high-frequency trading.

08

“The Father”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Father” (MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre: May, 2016)

 

Frank Langella weaves a tantalizing theatrical tapestry as Andre, an 80 year-old man who is declining into the debilitating dementia, rapidly losing cognitive function.

As the play begins, Andre’s exasperated daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) is explaining to him that she needs to find a new “helper,” since the previous one quit after he physically threatened her with a curtain rod and called her “a little bitch.”

Not surprisingly, Andre denies this but then dismisses it, saying he’s perfectly capable of caring for himself.  Which, obviously, he isn’t since – in the next scene – he doesn’t recognize her. Nor does the audience, actually, since the character of Anne is played by another actress.

While that’s eventually explained, Andre’s misperceptions continue. Is Anne married to Pierre, or is she preparing to go to London to live with a new lover?

Andre’s confusion continues as a strange man slaps him across the face, his watch gets stolen, and the elegant furniture he’s accustomed to disappears, replaced by a hospital bed.

Expressing the terror that is growing within his consciousness, Langella is a consummate actor, whether he’s oozing charm or claiming that he once was an engineer – or, perhaps, a clown – or tap dancer. His original irritation, manifesting itself in arrogance, becomes a pathetic cry of despair as he descends into helpless dependency.

French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has been translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Doug Hughes, who stages 15 short scenes, punctuated by blinding flashes of light that seem indicate Andre’s cerebral synapses. Scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting expert Donald Holder have created a stunning Paris apartment, augmented by music/sound by Fitz Patton and Catherine Zuber’s costumes.

But what exactly is the audience experiencing?

Is it “a tragic farce,” which is what it was dubbed when it opened in Paris in 2012?  Tragic, yes, but I found nothing farcical about Andre’s dilemma.

I believe that Florian Zeller is depicting the various stages of the growing plague of Alzheimer’s, an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that has affected and will touch most of us during our lifetime. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than five million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.

“Art”

Susan Granger’s review of “Art” (Westport Country Playhouse: May, 2016)

 

The psychological and emotional dynamics of friendship are examined in French playwright Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning comedy, which is playing in tandem with “Red” at the Westport Country Playhouse.

When Serge (John Skelly) buys an expensive abstract painting, he invites his two best friends, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan), to view it.

Measuring about 4’x5,’ the stark painting is monochromatic white-on-white; although a fictional artist is cited, it’s obviously meant to be the work of Robert Ryman.

Marc arrives first – and he is stunned that Serge, who is a successful dermatologist but by no means wealthy, spent 200 Euros on it. Smug and sardonic, Marc is dismissive of the artist and his vision.

Amiable Ivan’s reaction is far more diplomatic and less denigrating, perhaps because he’s far more concerned with the invitations for his upcoming wedding.

But neither are as understanding and compassionate as Serge had hoped after his huge expenditure, basically questioning his sensitivity and aesthetic taste.

Admirably structured by director Mark Lamos, the three accomplished actors display solid comic timing, make it superficially amusing, utilizing vigorous language. But below the surface, this play is filled with provocative ideas and observations.

Most of all, it’s revelatory about our appreciation of art which, in turn, is a reflection of our often-confusing culture in which the art world is propelled by money and power.

The audience is asked to ponder, “What is art”? Is it the universal legibility, which abstractionists strive for, or should it be more familiar and representational?

Does Serge really adore the painting? Or did he purchase it as a status symbol?

Unfortunately, since the personalities of the three men seem so diverse, it’s difficult to imagine why they became friends in the first place. Since no cohesive connective tissue among them is ever revealed, it’s difficult to invest any emotional energy in the viability of their relationship.

This month, “Art” will be performed on even-numbered days; “Red” on the odd-numbered days. For more information and tickets, go to www.playhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

“Red”

Susan Granger’s review of “Red” (Westport Country Playhouse: May, 2016)

The Westport Country Playhouse opened the season with two Tony Award-winning plays – “Red” and “Art” – staged in repertory. Intellectually provocative, they’re about creating and owning paintings.

Set in 1958 in a studio in New York City, John Logan’s “Red” delves into the relationship between acclaimed artist Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and his eager, young assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews).

Rothko’s potent first words are “What do you see?” as Ken stares out into the darkened theater, transforming the fourth wall into a canvas worth analyzing.

As mentor, Rothko pontificates, often utilizing the imagery and language of academia. He’s part of a generation of “serious” artists who rebelled against cubism, replacing it with abstract expressionism.

Commissioned by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Rothko is working on a series of murals intended to adorn the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building. According to patron Nelson Rockefeller, their intent was to match fine cuisine with magnificent art.

Each painting has a deep reddish-brown base color over which Rothko places a window-like form in red or black or orange. Rothko’s color palate suggests dried blood, evoking in Ken painful childhood memories of the grisly murder of his parents.

Significantly, Rothko was so enraged by the idea of his murals hanging in a trendy restaurant that he cancelled his contract. Nine were donated to London’s Tate Gallery and seven went to the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of art. Others are on display in The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Written by John Logan and directed by Mark Lamos, it’s a verbal sparring match between mentor and acolyte with Stephen Rowe (who understudied Alfred Molina on Broadway) propelling the play and Patrick Andrews effective as his foil – although I would have loved to see Tony-winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl”) in this role.

According to Artistic Director Mark Lamos, “Red” and “Art” have never been programmed together before and, while each stands on its own, seeing them together creates a new appreciation not only for the artist’s dilemma but also the spectator’s. I just wish they were more emotionally engaging.

For a schedule and ticket information, go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.