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“Hercules”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hercules” (Paramount Pictures/M.G.M.)

 

Sword-and-sandal is a genre unto itself. Often set in classic Greco-Roman or Biblical history, it generally features a simplistic plot with a muscleman hero. Its appeal is primitive. The men are bare-chested, the women are curvaceous, and the villains are scheming royals/aristocrats. There’s lots of physical combat, although the action can border on silliness and camp. A series of 19 movies about Hercules were made in Italy in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, following Steve Reeves’ highly successful “Hercules” (1957). The demigod has been played by Gordon Scott, Kirk Morris, Mickey Hargitay (Jayne Mansfield’s husband), Mark Forest, Alan Steel, Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus (a.k.a. Rock Stevens), Mike Lane – and now Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

In this revisionist version, Hercules is a restless mercenary whose devoted nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) serves as his mythmaker, weaving stories to enhance his image and reputation as the son of Zeus, who impregnated the mortal Alcmene, rousing the understandable ire of his goddess wife Hera. Hercules’ crew also includes the droll soothsayer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), childhood friend Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the Amazonian archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal who resembles a sturdy Nicole Kidman), and shell-shocked, feral mute, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie). Responding to a plea from lovely Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt), they journey to Thrace, where they’re greeted by treacherous King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes), who wants them to train his troops to fight an army of demons.

Based on Steve Moore’s comic books, adapted by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, and directed by Brett Ratner (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), it slogs along, punctuated by impressive, computer-enhanced battle scenes and a few memorable moments. Like when Hercules, wearing the vanquished Nemean lion’s head as a helmet, picks up a horse-and-rider, hurling them to the ground. If you’re willing to spring for the 3D surcharge, the military formations are impressive as spears come whizzing by you.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hercules” is a frenetic, fitfully fun 4, a popcorn picture that becomes a tongue-in-cheek tussle.

“Lucy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lucy” (Universal Pictures)

 

Starting with the provocative premise – that human beings use only 10% of their brain capacity – this is strictly science fiction. Filmmaker Luc Besson knew that this percentage figure was inaccurate, yet plunged ahead with his inventive adventure, revolving around a naïve young American named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who gets tricked into delivering a mysterious metal briefcase to a Taiwanese crime boss, Mr. Jang (South Korean actor Choi Min Sik), and forced to become one of his drug mules. When she’s repeatedly kicked in the gut, there’s leakage from the bag of blue crystals, a narcotic known as CPH4, that’s been surgically inserted in her abdomen, and a metamorphosis occurs: Lucy becomes superhuman.  Determined not only to wreak primal revenge on her captors but also to acquire more and more knowledge, employing her increasing array of powers and skills – she contacts Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), a neuroscientist who is lecturing about cerebral capacity at a university in Paris.

Cleverly utilizing computer-generated imagery, while suspending all sensible logic thru fragmented, episodic story-telling, French writer/director Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita,” “Leon: The Professional,” “Taken,” “The Transporter”) has created a fast-paced, blood-splattered, eerie escapade, shot on a mere $40 million budget. Obviously inspired by Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Neo in “The Matrix” franchise, Besson even takes the name Lucy from the fossilized skeleton of man’s earliest ancestor, Australopitchecus afarensis, which was discovered in 1974.

In addition to playing butt-kicking Black Widow in Marvel’s “Avenger” movies, Scarlett Johansson vocalized the seductive computer in Spike Jonze’s “Her” and embodied the elusive, enigmatic, enticing alien in Jonathan Glazer’s surreal “Under the Skin.” So, as cleverly awesome Lucy, she can believably handle telekinesis, intercepting electro-magnetic signals and communicating via satellites. Look for Johansson to emerge as Angelina Jolie’s successor as the preeminent female action star.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lucy” is a weird yet strangely intriguing 7, posing fascinating philosophical questions, like: Does time truly exist? Why are we really here? And is our essence immortal?

“And So It Goes”

Susan Granger’s review of “And So It Goes” (Clarius Entertainment)

 

While Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton get star billing, Connecticut’s scenic shoreline quickly becomes the center of attention in Rob Reiner’s new romantic comedy – at least for local residents. Filmed in part at Lake Compounce in Bristol, as well as in Bridgeport, Greenwich, Southport and Black Rock (which is thanked in the credits), it revolves around an about-to-retire real estate salesman who avidly reads the Fairfield Citizen newspaper.

While grumpy, misanthropic widower Oren Little (Douglas) is desperately trying to unload his palatial, overpriced mansion in Fairfield and retire to Vermont, he finds himself saddled with caring for a 10 year-old granddaughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins), he never knew he had because his estranged, ex-junkie son, Luke (Scott Shepherd), has been sent to prison for nine months.  Help comes from Leah (Keaton), the wannabe lounge-singer who lives next-door. She bursts into tears whenever she sings love ballads because they remind her of her late husband. And you can easily predict where the plot goes from there.

Doing his best to create charm from Oren’s smug, unrepentantly obnoxious behavior, Michael Douglas basically reprises his “Las Vegas” (2013) performance, while Diane Keaton revives her customary neuroticism from “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003). Working from a bland, formulaic script by Mark Andrus (co-writer of “As Good As It Gets”), veteran director Rob Reiner (“The Bucket List,” “When Harry Met Sally”) elicits strong performances from his ensemble, particularly young Sterling Jerins who underplays effectively.

Obviously drawing inspiration from coping with Cameron, his own, real-life jailed son, Douglas’s personal pain is palpable – and, as he ages, he looks more and more like his father Kirk. Ms. Keaton’s quavery crooning is pleasant, as Reiner accompanies her on the piano when they audition for restaurateur Frankie Valli. As Oren’s outspoken co-worker, Frances Sternhagen steals every scene she’s in – it’s too bad there are so few.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “And So It Goes” is an engaging, yet forgettable 5. Aimed at a senior-citizen audience, it should enjoy a long life as a DVD.

“Hairspray”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hairspray” (The Summer Theater of New Canaan)

 

If you’re looking for summer musical theater that’s chock full of top-notch talent that – in this particular case – is better than Broadway – at a third of the price, get tickets to see “Hairspray” at the Summer Theater of New Canaan.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, it’s the story of how a pudgy, dance-crazed teenager, Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Spigelman), stuns her oversized, overprotective mom (Greg Loudon – in drag) and sympathetic dad (Nick Reynolds) by winning a coveted spot on an afternoon TV dance party, stealing the affections of hunky heartthrob Link Larkin (Nick Pankuch) and becoming a fearless, unstoppable force for racial integration, much to the chagrin of scheming Velma Von Tussle (Jodi  Stevens), the ex-beauty queen who produces “The Corny Collins Show,” a local version of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

Director Allegra Libonati and choreographer Doug Shankman gently bury many of the subversive undertones that dominated John Waters’ original concept, preferring to concentrate on the trials and tribulations of being ‘different’ in this bouncy, toe-tapping,  rock ‘n’ roll musical with music by Marc Shaiman who co-wrote the lyrics with Scott Wittman and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan.  Julia Noulin-Merat’s set design and Daniel B. Chapman’s lighting enhance the effectiveness of Orli Nativ’s colorfully nostalgic costumes, Bobbie Clifton Zlotnik’s outrageous beehive wigs and David Hancock Turner’s superb on-stage orchestra.

Shimmying Rebecca Spigelman sparkles, while Greg Loudon camps it up with diminutive Nick Reynolds, and Jodi Stevens is marvelously malevolent.  Sharon Malane is effervescent as Tracy’s BFF, who teams up with dazzling dancer De’Sean Dooley and is befriended by show-stopping A’lisa Miles.

I must confess this was my first visit to The Summer Theater of New Canaan, located in an airy, all-weather tent adjacent to New Canaan High School in Waveny Park – but it won’t be my last. If you think you have to travel to Manhattan – or Goodspeed – for high quality musical productions with Equity casts, you haven’t discovered this ‘gem,’ right here in Fairfield County.

“You Can’t Stop The Beat” but, unfortunately, “Hairspray” only plays in New Canaan until August, 3, so get your tickets now.  Call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org

 

 

“Boyhood”

Susan Granger’s review of “Boyhood” (IFC Films)

 

Director Richard Linklater filmed this extraordinary coming-of-age saga every October over 12 consecutive years, chronicling the life of six year-old Ellar Coltrane, until he reaches 18.

Given the fictional screen-name of Mason (Coltrane) is first seen in East Texas, playing with neighborhood kids and squabbling with his older sister, Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei). At the end of this segment, they move to Houston which means a new home, new elementary school, new friends. Mason’s Dad (Ethan Hawke) and Mom (Patricia Arquette) are divorced; Mason’s always hoping that they’ll get back together.  But that’s not to be. Lovers come and go in his parents’ lives. Problem is: whenever his Mom finds a new man, she marries him – and one (Marco Perella) turns out to be an abusive alcoholic. By the time Mason turns 15, Coltrane has become less stiff on-camera, wryly humorous and far more self-assured. Going off to UT-Austin, he’s matured before our eyes.

Richard Linklater epitomizes the independent American filmmaker. From “Dazed and Confused” and “School of Rock” to his Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “After Sunset,” “Before Midnight”), he continues to choose off-beat topics. Shooting in 35 mm and presenting the story in a linear structure, rather that utilizing flashbacks, Linklater dilutes the melodrama but emphasizes the essential veracity.

In this kind of episodic experiment, Linklater joins Michael Apted, who has documented 14 British youngsters, revisiting them every seven years for his “Up” series. What’s unusual is Linklater’s substantial ownership. Traditionally, the filmmaker gets points (a.k.a. a percentage of the profits) but sacrifices his copyright once a financier, like IFC Films, becomes the distributor. However, in this case, Linklater chose to relinquish his usual low-seven-figure upfront fee in order to preserve a stake.  He’s not unique, however.  George Lucas became a billionaire by retaining “Star Wars” merchandising, licensing and sequel rights, while Mel Gibson’s self-financed “The Passion of the Christ” reaped hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nearly three hours in length, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Boyhood” is a naturalistic 9, a bittersweet alternative to studio productions.

“Magic in the Moonlight”

Susan Granger’s review of “Magic in the Moonlight” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Confession: I can’t remember seeing a movie from writer/director Woody Allen that I didn’t like. Some are better than others, like “Blue Jasmine” (2013), but they’re all intriguing in their own way.  This entrancing, new romantic comedy falls kind of in the middle.

Set in 1928 on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France, the plot revolves around the efforts of Europe’s most acclaimed magician to debunk a beautiful, young American from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who purports to be a spiritual medium.  Responding to a plea from his longtime friend/fellow conjurer Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), acerbic Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) arrives at the Riviera villa of gullible Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), who is eager to reconnect with her late, Pittsburgh industrialist husband via séances conducted by another houseguest, clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who’s traveling with her protective mother (Marcia Gay Harden). In the meantime, Grace’s sappy son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), is determined to woo and win Sophie’s heart, while Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) in Provence provides wise counsel.

Obviously inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” Woody Allen envisions cynically debonair Stanley Crawford as misanthropic Henry Higgins, whose dyspeptic demeanor is so arrogant and brash that he alienates everyone with whom he converses. Indeed, as an astute illusionist, Stanley’s so determined to slyly unmask Sophie, proving she’s a fraud that he doesn’t realize he’s succumbed to her “magical thinking.”  In this role, Colin Firth seems to be channeling the late, great Rex Harrison, a similarity that Allen subtly acknowledges, evoking memories of “My Fair Lady.” As for Emma Stone, she plays sweet Sophie’s hand so close to the vest that one wonders if, perhaps, she could be the real deal.

Gloriously photographed by Darius Khondji with opulent period costumes by Sonia Grande, burnished sets by production designer Anne Seibel, and an endearing American songbook soundtrack, it’s a joy to behold.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Magic in the Moonlight” is a whimsical, ephemeral 8, airily appealing to those who loved “Midnight in Paris” (2011).

“Nora”

Susan Granger’s review of “Nora” at the Westport Country Playhouse (July, 2014)

 

Referred to as the father of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen was the first to propel contemporary dilemmas onto the stage, addressing changes that were occurring during the late 19th century. In “A Doll’s House” (1879), he explored a woman’s place in male-dominated Norwegian society, which Ingmar Bergman adapted into Swedish in 1981, adroitly cutting about a third of the original play, retitling it “Nora” and, not surprisingly, making it far more cinematic. And the essential dilemma still remains relevant.

In this translation by Fredrick J. Market and Lise-Lone Marker, the characters are reduced to a quintet:  beautiful, beguiling Nora (Liv Rooth), her dominating husband Torvald Helmer (Lucas Hall), her old friend Kristine Linde (Stephanie Janssen), the family physician/confidante, Dr. Rank (LeRoy McClain), and unscrupulous Nils Krogstad (Shawn Fagan), a bank clerk from whom Nora obtained a loan under false pretenses and without her husband’s knowledge, yet, ostensibly, to save his life.

Imaginatively directed by David Kennedy, time and place are amorphous, barely indicated by scenic designer Kristen Robinson’s minimalist set and Katherine Roth’s circa 20th century costumes.  Through sheer artistry, Liv Rooth allows the audience to see through the uncertainty of Nora’s mask, to see the doll dancing, while Lucas Hall brings a warmth and vulnerability that’s rarely seen in Torvald, even when he asserts, “No man will sacrifice his honor for love,” to which Nora replies, “Millions of women have.” She plays her role, just as he plays his – as their co-dependency becomes transparent.

But what audiences will remember most about this production is its bizarre conclusion. Eliminating Nora’s traditional slamming of the door as she leaves the Helmer home in order to grow up and make her own way in the world, instead, there’s Torvald, stripped not only of his clothes but also of his dreams and desires.

The powerful and, inevitably, controversial “Nora” runs through Aug. 2 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

“The Purge: Anarchy”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Purge: Anarchy” (Universal Pictures)

 

When you hear audience members cheering for the ferocious killers-on-the-rampage in this ramped-up sequel to last summer’s unexpected sci-fi horror hit, it makes you really wonder about our cultural values today – and society in general.

Set in Los Angeles circa 2023, the action once again takes place during the annual Purge, a 12-hour period every March in which ghoulishly-masked participants can commit all kinds of crimes (rape, theft, murder, etc.) without fear of reprisal or punishment from the government that calls itself the New Founding Fathers of America. Psychologists explain that “having a good cleanse” allows ordinary citizens to indulge their basest aggressive instincts, a cathartic which serves to keep the crime rate and population growth in check for the rest of the year, cut the unemployment rate and enrich the coffers of arms manufacturers.

Urging each other to “stay safe” are an impoverished waitress/single mother, Eva (Carmen Ejogo), and her rebellious 16 year-old daughter Cali (Zoe Soul), who discover to their horror that Eva’s elderly father (John Beasley) has sold his life to an organization that arranges private Purging parties for wealthy thrill-seekers. Then there’s a stranded, squabbling yuppie couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez). Unfortunately, they all get caught outside during the mayhem-filled night, so it’s up to a stoic loner, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a police sergeant seeking vengeance on those responsible for the death of his young son, to shelter them in his weapons-laden, armor-plated car which, predictably, becomes disabled, forcing the terrified group to try to make their way on foot through the carnage to seek fortified shelter.

Once again written and directed by James DeMonaco, the plot moves out of a barricaded suburban home-invasion scenario and onto mean, urban streets, delving into racial and class divides, twisting surprisingly when a Black Panther’ish radical, Carmelo (Michael K. Williams, clad in John Lennon spectacles and a beret), leads militant, anti-Purge followers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Purge: Anarchy” is a simplistic, survivalist 3, satirizing American bloodlust.

“Planes: Fire & Rescue”

Susan Granger’s review of “Planes: Fire & Rescue” (Disney)

 

Anthropomorphizing automobiles, trains, ships and planes has become a Disney specialty. This time, the comedic adventure is set in a Western wilderness area known as Piston Peak National Park.

When the plucky, single-engine prop plane known as Dusty Crophopper (voiced by comedian Dane Cook) discovers that his once-trusty gear box is wearing out, it’s just as he’s preparing for the fabled Corn Fest. When he realizes that there’s no available replacement for his kind of older model, he’s crushed.  After a couple of foolhardy escapades which endanger not only himself but also others, he decides to leave the racing circuit to become a certified fire fighter and join stern, no-nonsense Blade Ranger (voiced by Ed Harris) and his over-the-hill aircraft squadron. The Smokejumper team includes the feisty air tanker Lil’ Dipper (voiced by Julie Bowen from TV’s “Modern Family”), the heavy-load helicopter Windlifter (voiced by Wes Studi), the ex-military transport Cabbie (voiced by Capt. Dale Dye) and the folksy, vintage fire truck Mayday (voiced by Hal Holbrook), cursing “Oh, Chevy!” So when an out-of-control wildfire threatens a newly reopened luxury hotel, Grand Fusel Lodge, that’s filled with tourists, they predictably swing into heroic action, and Dusty learns how to be a team player.

Generically scripted with sadly stereotypical sexism by director Bobs Gannaway and his co-writer Jeffrey M. Howard, it re-works “The Little Engine That Could” with touches of “Thomas the Tank Engine.” To achieve a kind of surreal believability, the animators put eyes on the vehicles’ windscreens and mouths in the vent space beneath the propellers – and the resulting visuals are stunning, particularly in 3D.

Soaring far over the head of its intended audience, there’s an extended parody of the old TV show “CHiPs,” dubbed “CHoPs,” which is obviously intended to amuse the parents who have accompanied their children, along with rueful lines like, “She left me for a hybrid. I didn’t hear it coming.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Planes: Fire & Rescue” is a spiraling 6, aimed primarily at boys from four-to-eight years old.

“Sex Tape”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sex Tape” (Columbia Pictures/Sony)

 

In the prologue, Annie (Cameron Diaz) blogs incessantly about the spicy sex life she enjoyed with her husband Jay (Jason Segel) when they met in college, when they first copulated, the second time they copulated and right on up to the time they married and had children (Sebastian Hedges Thomas, Giselle Eisenberg).  Then suburban life – and exhaustion – robbed them of carnal pleasure. So she comes up with the idea sending the kids to Grandma (Nancy Lenehan) overnight, during which time they make a three-hour sex tape, depicting all the anatomical positions in “The Joy of Sex.”

After that set-up, it’s all downhill. Predictably, the next morning, Jay forgets to erase their vigorous frolic and inadvertently uploads it to the elusive iCloud, where it’s distributed via gifted iPads to friends and family. Joined by their voyeuristic pals (Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper), they try to retrieve the iPads and then, toting their sleepy children along, they break into the San Fernando Valley headquarters of a sex-video website and are caught by the porn broker (Jack Black).

Idiotically scripted by Kate Angelo, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and sluggishly directed by Jake Kasdan (“Bad Teacher”), it’s a tame, tepid and terminally dull, never achieving its farcical potential. Its only redemption comes with the pivotal appearance of Rob Lowe who, back in 1988, starred in his own, real-life celebrity sex tape scandal. Here, he plays Hank Rosenbaum, Annie’s prospective boss, a narcissistic, coke-snorting toy-company CEO whose posh home is filled with paintings of his face superimposed on depictions of Disney cartoons.

As for visual nudity, forget it. Cameron Diaz plays peekaboo, revealing little, while Jason Segel, who went full frontal in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” also goes coy. While Diaz’s trim body is enviable, her face looks so Botox’d that it’s become a waxy mask, and Segel needs to spend some time toning his torso at the gym.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sex Tape” is a flaccid 3, frantically trying to combine family-friendly fun with a shallow sexcapade. It’s a total turn-off.