“The Conjuring 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Conjuring 2” (Warner Bros./New Line Cinema)

 

Renowned Connecticut demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) return with another ‘documented’ case, this time set in 1977 in England.

After their Amityville debacle, clairvoyant Lorraine insists that they take a break from their demanding case work. While working on that notorious investigation at the Lutz home on Long Island, New York, she had a profoundly disturbing vision of a horrifying nun – shown in the opening séance sequence.

But when the Catholic Church requests their assessment of a paranormal situation in Great Britain, they respond to the evangelical summons, pack their Bible and travel to North London, where a working-class family has been driven from their home by poltergeists.

Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) is a single mother, raising her four children in a crumbling public housing in the borough of Enfield. Her youngest daughter, 11 year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe), is tormented by angry undead spirits claiming ownership of their flat.

The Hodgson family’s plight fails to elicit the sympathy of their doubting neighbors, while parapsychologist Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) aggressively asserts her own doubts. Yet there’s some support from amateur researcher Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney).

Based on the notorious Enfield Haunting, it’s scripted by Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, David Leslie Johnson and director James Wan (“Saw,” “Insidious”) as another haunted house tale but this time with a creepy twist, like the wall of crucifixes that are bizarrely turned upside down.

With the help of cinematographer Don Burgess, production designer Julie Berghoff, editor Kirk Morri and composer Joseph Bishara, Wan amplifies the foreboding and dread with sound design, jump-scares and demonic surprises – including a ghoulish leather reclining chair, a self-propelled toy firetruck and a craggy, old man who suddenly pops up, not to mention creaking floorboards and pounding noises.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Conjuring 2” is a supernatural 6, continuing the scary franchise.

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“Buyer and Cellar”

Susan Granger’s review of “Buyer and Cellar” (Westport Country Playhouse: June, 2016)

 

Laughter rocks the theater as Michael Urie brings Jonathan Tolins’ hit Off-Broadway comedy to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Urie opens the subtly seductive satire with several disclaimers, making it clear that it’s is a work of fiction, since none of this “could possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”

On a stage sparsely furnished with a round café table, chair and bench, Urie relates how Alex More, a struggling gay actor in Los Angeles, gets hired to be the sole, always subservient clerk in the private mini-mall that Barbra Streisand has created for herself in the basement of a barn adjacent to her Malibu mansion.

Since Barbra’s a compulsive shopper, her quaint, European-styled arcade includes an antique shop and clothing boutique, stocked with her abundant collection of vintage dresses, object d’art, and dolls.

Its creation is detailed in Streisand’s 2010 coffee-table photo book “My Passion for Design.” As Alex notes from the front cover flap, this is the “refuge she’s longed for since the days when she shared a small Brooklyn apartment with her mother, brother and grandparents…”

Often recognized as Marc St. James from TV’s “Ugly Betty,” lanky Michael Urie energetically captures the iconic Streisand persona with a few masterfully nuanced mannerisms, including flipping her hair and shrugging one shoulder asking, “Am I right or am I right?”

Director Stephen Brackett reins in campy caricature, cleverly balancing superstar Barbra’s alleged perfectionism with sensitivity, affection, even empathy, adding emotional heft to a subplot involving Alex’s struggling screenwriter boyfriend Barry.

At the after-party, playwright Jonathan Tolins (“Secrets of the Trade,” “Twilight of the Golds”) revealed that the reason Westport was able to book this original production was because the show will be filmed there for broadcast on Theater Close-Up on Channel 13/WNET, joining a new wave of televised theatrical presentations that includes the current Broadway revival of “She Loves Me.”

The obvious question everyone asks is, “Has Barbra seen this?” Apparently not. If she were in the audience, her reactions to the tart absurdity would divert attention from the stage.  So, when it’s on TV, Ms. Streisand can watch in privacy.

Irresistibly amusing, “Buyer and Cellar” runs at the Westport Country Playhouse until July 3.  For more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at (203) 227-4177.

“Central Intelligence”

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

 

If you’re really desperate for yet another odd-couple caper, consider this fast-paced froth that’s almost immediately forgettable.

Mild-mannered Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is a disgruntled accountant who married his teenage sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) yet yearns for the glory days when he was Senior Class President and the town’s most popular jock.

As his 20th high school anniversary looms, Calvin re-connects with Robbie Weirdicht (Dwayne “The Rock”  Johnson), a shy, sensitive soul who’s “super into unicorns” and remains grateful to Calvin for a singular act of kindness when he was the once-obese victim of cruel shower-room bullies – which is shown in flashback with lots of inventive CGI.

When now-grown Calvin and Robbie – now known as Bob Stone – meet for a drink, they bond again. But then a CIA bigwig (Amy Ryan) shows up at Calvin’s house, informing him that Bob is actually a former undercover agent gone rogue after killing his partner.

So – is Bob the good guy that Calvin remembers? Or has he gone to the dark side?

Soon, hapless Calvin joins fanny-pack-wearing Bob on-the-run from law enforcement and a complex, high-stakes conspiracy involving the Black Badger that only he can help unravel.

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (“We’re the Millers,” “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”) from a script he co-wrote with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (“The Mindy Project”), it capitalizes on the chemistry between Hart and Johnson, who display a genuine camaraderie, plus cameos from Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul and others.

While the “role reversal” concept works, the espionage plot is sloppy, the weakest link in the comedic chain of events. And – after the horrific massacre in Orlando Florida – the violent scene in which Calvin’s office is splayed with bullets as onlookers duck for cover seems particularly disturbing.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Central Intelligence” is a sweet, high-spirited 6, revolving around mid-life male anxiety and concluding with an extended epilogue and blooper reel.

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“Finding Dory”

Susan Granger’s review of “Finding Dory” (Pixar/Disney)

 

After the endearingly forgetful blue tang won our hearts in “Finding Nemo” (2003), Dory deserved a feature film of her own.

“Hi, I’m Dory. I suffer from short-term memory loss” is the way she sweetly introduces herself.

Years ago, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) became separated from her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton & Eugene Levy), but she suddenly remembers something about Monterey, California.

“I can’t find them on my own. I’ll forget,” Dory says, sorrowfully.

So Nemo (voiced by Hayden Rolence) and his dad Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) join Dory and journey from Australia across the Pacific Ocean to an aquatic rehab center, the Marine Life Institute in California.

While “Rescue, Rehabilitation, Release” is MLI’s mission, much of the film’s comedy comes from its cranky seven-legged octopus Hank (voiced by Ed O’Neill), who is determined to get to the Cleveland Aquarium.

Since she can read and speak whale, amnesiac Dory also has amusing encounters with her near-sighted white shark pal Destiny (voiced by Kaitlin Olson) and brain-addled beluga buddy Bailey (voiced by Ty Burrell), while Nemo and Marlin befriend gruff, Cockney sea lions (voiced by Idris Elba & Dominic West). Even the sea turtle Crush (voiced by Andrew Stanton) re-appears.

Written by Andrew Stanton who co-directs with Angus MacLane, it’s basically the same episodic story with a Pacific regal blue tang replacing the orange clownfish. With its watery refraction and reflection, the naturalistic animation is dazzling.

The ending was revised after Pixar executives viewed the cautionary documentary “Blackfish” (2013) about keeping orcas in captivity; now, MLI’s underwater inhabitants have the option to leave when they’re ready – and Sigourney Weaver does a vocal cameo.

FYI: While many fish stores have stocked up on exotic, expensive blue tangs, parents should know that they’re fragile and require a very specific tank set up and care.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Finding Dory” is an emotionally engaging 8, offering splashy family fun.

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“Now Your See Me 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Now You See Me 2” (Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment)

 

I love magic and stage illusion, which is why I so enjoyed “Now You See Me” (2013). But – poof! Most of that’s gone from this shallow, often incoherent sequel.

The previous thriller introduced an elusive team of rogue tricksters, known as the Four Horsemen. There’s renowned illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg). Wearing a pork-pie hat, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a master hypnotist. Flipping a deck of cards, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) specializes in street magic and sleight-of-hand.

While their female cohort, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), has disappeared, she’s replaced by spunky Lula (Lizzy Caplan), a fake-violence specialist who once pulled a hat out of a rabbit.

A year after their Las Vegas heist, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) reconvenes them, and soon they’re involved in a chase through some kind of a pipeline, transporting them from Manhattan to Macau, China, and an ancient magic shop run by Li (Jay Chou) and his grandmother Bu Bu (Tsai Chin).

It seems that an unethical tech prodigy, Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), is determined to acquire a card-shaped mini-circuit board that would give him access to everyone’s private information.

Suddenly, their old nemesis, malevolent corporate financier Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), reappears and he’s teamed up with Merritt McKinney’s evil twin brother (Woody Harrelson).

At the same time, Dylan Rhodes becomes enmeshed in discovering what really happened to his Houdini-like father who drowned back in 1984, because it’s obvious that skeptical Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a professional debunker, knows more than he’s willing to reveal.

Scripted by Ed Solomon and directed by Jon M. Chu (“Step Up,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”), this contrived caper collapses under the weight of its convoluted misdirection. What’s missing from is any sense of urgency or suspense. There’s also no sense of playfulness or flaky fun.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Now You See Me 2” is a frenzied 5 – displaying an initially flashy flair that quickly fizzles.

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“Maggie’s Plan”

Susan Granger’s review of “Maggie’s Plan” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Writer/director Rebecca Miller was obviously trying to make a screwball romantic comedy, set in New York, but the result is tepid from beginning to end.

Realizing that her biological clock is ticking, ditsy, self-absorbed Maggie Hardin (Greta Gerwig) longs for a child. That’s why she’s requested sperm for artificial insemination from Guy (Travis Fimmel), her husky, brainy, former college classmate who’s starting a pickle business in Brooklyn.

At the same time, she falls for John Harding (Ethan Hawke), a shaggy college professor/wannabe novelist. He’s unhappily married to a dour, intimidating Danish anthropologist, Georgette Norgaard (Julianne Moore), and they have a couple of young children.

Discarding Mr. Pickle as an afterthought, Maggie discovers she’s pregnant, so middle-aged John leaves Georgette and marries much-younger Maggie. Problem is: after a few years, Maggie realizes not only does she not love John but that he was better off with Georgette. Hence, the plan.

Acclaimed as the current darling of independent cinema in “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” Greta Gerwig not only delivers confusing inflections but she swallows her sentences, a habit that becomes increasingly annoying.

Showing the decidedly un-glamorous lives of Manhattan intellectuals, Rebecca Miller (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “Personal Velocity”) dwells on pretentious details, rambling on about arcane academia, but she doesn’t extend much effort insofar as character development and/or motivation, using Maggie’s best friends (“Saturday Night Live” alums Bill Hader & Maya Rudolph) as a Greek chorus.

“The characters are not me,” Miller asserts, “but they do reflect how I felt as a daughter, as a woman on my own, as a parent, and so on.”

Rebecca Miller is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, and her husband is actor Daniel Day-Lewis. So it’s not surprising that she alludes to Slovij Zizek, a Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher and cultural critic who has gained international acclaim, asserting that ideology is an unconscious fantasy that structures reality.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Maggie’s Plan” is an acerbic, idiosyncratic 4, tartly erudite to the extreme.

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“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows”

Susan Granger’s review of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Filled with Michael Bay’s usual high-octane action, this new 3-D sequel in the blockbuster franchise finds Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) battling villainous Shredder (Brian Tee) and his henchwoman Karai (Brittany Ishibashi).

When Shredder escapes from a police convoy, he joins forces with mad scientist, Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), and two idiotic ex-cons, Bebop the giant warthog (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady the rhinoceros (WWE’s Stephen ‘Sheamus’ Farrelly), to open a trans-dimensional portal to another galaxy, where the diabolical, disembodied Commander Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett) plans global domination, utilizing his Death Star-like Technodrome warship.

Tipped off by resolute TV reporter April O’Neill (Megan Fox) and her cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), the heroic, hard-shelled quartet – named after famed Renaissance painters – come out of hiding in the sewers, catching the attention of former corrections officer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), who has become a hockey stick-wielding vigilante, and skeptical NYC Police Commissioner Rebecca Vincent (Laura Linney).

Idiotically scripted, once again, by Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, the nostalgic silliness is earnestly directed by Dave Green (“Earth to Echo”), who does the best he can to captivate the attention of youngsters with the motion-capture animated mutant heroes-in-a-half-shell who long for a normal life.

Working with cinematographer Lula Carvalho, Dave Green’s city action sequences and in the Brazilian rainforest are particularly memorable.

FYI: The reptilian-hero concept first surfaced in 1984 as a Mirage Studios comic-book. Its success led to toys, video games and several Saturday morning TV-cartoon series. At one point, the Turtles represented 60% of all movable toy characters sold in the United States. The brand was rebooted in 1990 with Michael Bay’s first MTNT movie.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” is a fan-friendly 5, another funny-book brought to life.

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“Me Before You”

Susan Granger’s review of “Me Before You” (Warner Bros.)

 

Have you ever wondered why we like to cry at movies? It’s quite simple: when we’re watching a sad story, our brains cannot differentiate between actual people and the flickering images on the screen. And when we are emotionally engaged, we feel empathy, enlightenment, even empowerment.

Since British novelist Jojo Moyes adapted her own best-seller for the screen, this romantic drama, directed by Thea Sharrock, stays remarkably close to the printed page, which tackles the difficult dilemma of euthanasia. That means it’s a real tearjerker.

Debonair London financier Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) is an avid sportsman until a traffic accident leaves him a quadriplegic. Two years later, he’s ensconced in his family’s massive ‘castle’ in the English countryside. In chronic pain, he’s become bitter, rude and jaded – and he needs a caregiving companion.

Cue clumsy, kind-hearted 26 year-old Louisa ‘Lou’ Clark (Emilia Clarke) who desperately needs a job and soon becomes determined to help Will. Conveniently, the ‘heavy lifting’ – bathroom/bathing needs – are handled by his physical therapist (Stephen Peacocke).

While Lou’s chatty, charming exuberance certainly enlivens his life, just as he teaches her to expand her provincial horizons, Will, nevertheless, seems determined to opt for assisted suicide in Switzerland.

And there’s not much his wealthy parents (Charles Dance, Janet McTeer), nor Lou’s working-class family (Brendan Coyle, Samantha Spiro), can do to make him change his mind.

British actress Emilia Clarke is best known as steely Daenerys Targaryen – a.k.a. Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons – in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” while Sam Claflin scored in “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” and “The Hunger Games.” Tackling these complicated characters, they acquit themselves admirably, although the subplot involving Lou’s self-centered boyfriend (Matthew Lewis) falls flat.

Devotees of Jojo Moyes’ novel note that the author deleted a pivotal scene: the primary reason that Lou is so timid about venturing into the ‘outside’ world is because, years ago, she was sexually assaulted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Me Before You” is a bittersweet 6, wallowing in the throes of simplistic melodrama.

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“The Angry Birds”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Angry Birds” (Columbia Pictures/Rovio Animation)

 

How do you turn an app-based video game into a successful animated movie? Not a good movie, perhaps, but one that has box-office appeal.

First, producer John Cohen (“Despicable Me”) concocted a simple story on which Jon Vitti (“The Simpsons Movie”) wrote the silly, birds vs. pigs script. Then Finland’s Rovio Animation’s Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis took over as directors.

When he fails to deliver a “hatchday” treat and rebels against the happy camaraderie of Bird Island, Red the sardonic Cardinal (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) is sentenced to an anger-management classes conducted by Matilda (Maya Rudolph), a calm, free-range chicken who urges her students to therapeutically “paint your pain.”

Other rebellious misfits include Chuck (voiced by Josh Gad), the manic yellow canary; hulking Terence, whose guttural grunts supplied by Sean Penn; and the literally explosive blackbird Bomb (voiced by Danny McBride), complete with an orange ‘wick’ on his head.

Their ire is aroused when a pair of seemingly friendly singing-and-dancing green pigs – leader Leonard (voiced by Bill Hader) and his sidekick Ross (voiced by Tony Hale) – come ashore, snort around and steal the birds’ precious eggs to take home for a feast.

So furious Red and his feathered friends consult the once-Mighty Eagle (voiced by Peter Dinklage) and Judge Peckinpah (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key).

Vengeance is key as they flock to Pig Island, where the flightless birds devise a giant slingshot to catapult themselves at the oinking porkers to rescue their unborn chicks.

Amid the fast-paced, cartoony fun, bathroom humor, puns and pop culture visual gags abound – like a poster for Kevin Bacon in “Hamlet,” a book titled “50 Shades of Green,” and an obtuse glimpse of twin pigs, instead of girls, from “The Shining.” Unfortunately, it’s not interactive.

On the Granger Movie Gauge, “The Angry Birds” is a fitfully floppy 5, but Sony profits are flying high.

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“Love and Friendship”

Susan Granger’s review of “Love and Friendship” (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

When Jane Austen was very young, she scribbled the novella “Lady Susan,” an archly observant satire of 18th century epistolary novels in the form of letters from the hyper-articulate heroine.

It’s perfectly suited for writer/director Whit Stillman (“Damsels in Distress,” “Last Days of Disco,” “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona”), who has demonstrated a fondness for the witty banter that harks back to the Restoration comedy of manners.

So it’s not surprising that Stillman uses clever captions to introduce his large “Dramatis Personae,” characters from the landed English gentry.

The plot revolves around the devious manipulations of beautiful, recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (vivacious Kate Beckinsale) who, admittedly, has “no money and no husband.”

But she does have a trusted confidante/conspirator, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American exile married to an imperious aristocrat (Stephen Fry), who threatens to ship her back to the wilds of Connecticut if she sides with “the most accomplished flirt in all England.”

Arriving at Churchill, the lavish country estate of her late husband’s brother Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wary wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), scheming Lady Susan immediately beguiles Catherine’s wealthy younger brother, Reginald DeCourcey (Xavier Samuel, channeling a young Hugh Grant).

But before she can explore her own options, narcissistic Lady Susan must marry off her teenage daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who spurns the proposal of obliging Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) simply because he’s a blithering idiot or, as they put it, “a bit of a rattle.”

Diverse emotional entanglements abound, despite strict societal rules regarding acceptable behavior. One husband is deliciously dismissed as “too old to be governable, too young to die,” a hapless wife skewered with “If she were going to be jealous, she never should have married such a charming man.”

And so it goes until the surprisingly bawdy conclusion. Filming in Ireland, cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout, production designer Anna Rackard and costumer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh make the most of the exquisitely elegant settings.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Love and Friendship” is a snappy, snarky 7, appealing primarily to women and indefatigable Austen fans.

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