“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.

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“The Infiltrator”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Infiltrator” (Broad Green Pictures)

 

It’s a new twist on a familiar story, as a law-abiding everyman becomes entangled with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin drug cartel.

Back in 1986, Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) was a devoted husband and father, working as a U.S. Customs agent in Tampa, Florida. In the opening scene, he’s about to make an undercover drug deal in a bowling alley when the microphone strapped to his chest overheats, the excruciating pain almost blowing his cover.

Although his injury makes him eligible for paid retirement, Mazur refuses. Determined to make a significant dent in the “War on Drugs,” he decides to go after the real kingpins who control the massive cocaine importation to the United States.

“Don’t follow the drugs,” he says. “Follow the money.”

Calling himself Bob Musella, he poses as a flamboyantly successful money-launderer, cleverly duping Colombian distributors and their corrupt bankers, like suavely scheming Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and his wife, Gloria (Elena Anaya).

Tension mounts as an elaborate sting operation takes form, particularly when Bob’s leather briefcase with its cleverly hidden tape recorder unexpectedly pops open at just the wrong time.

Based on Mazur’s memoir, it’s adapted by Ellen Brown Furman and directed by her son, Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), who elicits authentically chilling performances from Bryan Cranston (“Trumbo,” TV’s “Breaking Bad”) and John Leguizamo, as his enigmatic informant/sidekick, Emir Abreau.

Furman subtly uses the glamorous beauty of German actress Diane Kruger, who played Marie Antoinette in “Farewell, My Queen” and Helen in “Troy,” to dazzle the gangsters as Musella’s fabricated fiancée – although she looks nothing like real-life rookie officer Kathy Ertz, whose inconspicuous, girl-next-door quality is obvious during the credits.

But there are other, better, movies about the international drug trade, like “Traffic,” “Rush” and “Escobar: Paradise Lost.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Infiltrator” is a suspenseful 6, a stylishly slick espionage thriller.

06

“Ghostbusters”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ghostbusters” (Columbia Pictures)

 

The infectious charm of the original “Ghostbusters” (1964) was the goofy chemistry between bright, slyly satiric “SNL” comedians (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson) and ectoplasmic special effects.

The problem with this mediocre re-make is not the gender-redo but its lack of originality, along with a scarcity of in-jokes, irony and cynicism – and a repetition of the same supernatural special effects.

The story begins as Columbia University Physics Professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) realizes her bid for tenure has been endangered by the re-issue of a parapsychology book she wrote years ago with a high-school pal, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy).

When Erin tracks Abby down, she discovers that Abby’s still chasing ghostly phenomena, partnering with crazed tech-head Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). They’re soon are soon joined by cheeky MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a walking encyclopedia of New York folklore.

Setting up shop above a Chinatown restaurant, they joined by a dimwitted assistant, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), who’s hired simply because he’s hunky. His incompetence is a running joke that overstays its welcome.

The playful plot involves Manhattan’s historic Aldridge mansion whose resident female ghost starts an epidemic of psychic nuisances. While the Mayor (Andy Garcia) and his assistant (Cecily Strong) are deep into deceptive denial, culpability can be traced back to Rowan North (Neil Casey), a resentful, demented creep.

Working from a screenplay co-written by Katie Dippold (“The Heat”) and director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Spy”), it‘s packed with coveralls-clad girl-power, along with some familiar faces.

Bill Murray is a respected debunker; Dan Aykroyd’s a cab driver who “don’t believe in no ghosts;” Ernie Hudson is Patty Tolan’s Uncle Bill; Amy Potts is a receptionist at the Mercado Hotel – and there’s a bust of the late Harold Ramis outside Erin’s office at Columbia University.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ghostbusters” is a fantasy-funny 5 – slime-time for female friendship.

05

“The Secret Life of Pets”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Secret Life of Pets” (Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures)

 

Admittedly, Pixar’s “Toy Story” came up with the fantasy first, but this animated adventure, set in Manhattan, explores the concept of what your pets might be up to when you’re gone for the day.

Beginning with a merchandising short featuring lawn-mowing Minions from “Despicable Me,” the main story kicks into gear as Katie (Ellie Kemper) disrupts the domestic tranquility of her beloved Jack Russell terrier Max (Louis CD.K.) by bringing home a huge, shaggy mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet).

Filled with resentment about Duke’s desire for dominance, caustic Max turns to Chloe (Lake Bell), the neighbor’s lazy Russian blue cat, along with his close circle of canine pals, including the pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and fluffy white Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), who has a major crush on Max.

Then, one day, when their dog-walker becomes distracted, Duke takes off in the park, clutching Max’s leash in his mouth. Soon, they’re lost and fall into the clutches of a manic, street-wise rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart), vindictive leader of the Flushed Pets, a group of resentful, sewer-dwelling animals who loathe the humans who abandoned them.

Worried that Max is missing, Gidget enlists help from Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a predatory falcon who lives on the roof, and they eventually wind up in Brooklyn with Pops, an elderly, partially-paralyzed Bassett Hound, who slyly knows his way around better than anyone else.

Working from an idea by Illumination Entertainment’s Chris Meledandri and a script by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch, directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney cheerfully sentimentalize the four-pawed characters, giving them distinctly human characteristics, even the fish, parakeet and guinea pig.

The action pieces are diverting, particularly when Max and Duke explore a sausage factory, where they gorge themselves into a stupor, but the redundant animal-catcher chases grow tedious.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Secret Life of Pets” fetches a sweetly spirited 6, providing a 90-minute diversion for youngsters who have already seen “Finding Dory.”

06

“The Purge: Election Year”

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

Combining sanctioned violence with the timely political scene proves an audience-intriguing premise for this third installment in James DeMonaco’s subversive, low-budget, horror/thriller franchise.

It reveals a futuristic America in which mayhem and murder are legal one night a year. During the 12-hour Purge, people can either try to stay safe or go on a crime-spree, suffering no consequences for their actions.

Sgt. Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now head of security for idealistic Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a Presidential candidate who promises to end the barbaric ritual, having lost her family during the mayhem several years ago.

Abolitionist Roan is now a prime target for the NFFA (the New Founding Fathers of America), a white supremacist group that views Purge Night as purification, a necessary escape valve that encourages economic subjugation. Their Oval Office candidate is a conservative/Christian minister (Kyle Secor).

So when a betrayal forces Leo Barnes and Charlie Roan out onto the streets of Washington, D.C., they must fight for survival – against blood-thirsty, axe-wielding, paramilitary fiends, wearing Abraham Lincoln and George Washington masks.

They’re joined by an African-American bodega owner (Mykelti Williamson) who’s furious about a spike in his “Purge insurance” premium, his immigrant employee (Joseph Julian Soria), and an anti-Purge EMT (Betty Gabriel).

Starting with “The Purge” (2013), followed by “The Purge: Anarchy” (2014), writer/director James DeMonaco has tapped into today’s adversarial political climate, a pulpy polarization that feeds on anger and aggression, frosting it with a layer of pop culture satire.

Not that his idea is new. “A Clockwork Orange” first shocked audiences with ritualized slaughter, followed by many films over the years, including the recent “Road Warrior” and “Hunger Games.”

What’s unique about DeMonaco’s dystopic concept is that – within a so-called civilized society – ALL crime has been legalized for 12 hours.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Purge: Election Year” is a fascistic 5, appealing to the homicidal maniac lurking inside everyone who has experienced something as simple as road rage.

05

“Independence Day: Resurgence”

Susan Granger’s review of “Independence Day: Resurgence” (20th Century-Fox)

 

This sci-fi sequel fizzles like a soggy firecracker. Set 20 years after the original, it begins with peace on Earth, as if mankind had finally realized that the biggest threat comes from outer space.

To that end, Earthlings are now utilizing the technology acquired from the extra-terrestrials to build up our defenses, including tactical bases on the Moon and Saturn.

Incoherently bobbled together by four different screenwriters (Dean Devlin, Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, James Vanderbilt), working with director Roland Emmerich, it’s a frenzied, fragmented fiasco.

What’s missing is a charismatic hero, like Will Smith’s swashbuckling Marine pilot Captain Steven Hiller. Before “Independence Day” (1996), Smith was best known as TV’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” After that, until bad choices torpedoed his career, Smith’s movies dominated the Fourth of July weekend.

So without a central character, we’re left with token supporting characters, each doing his/her thing when the bug-like aliens return, causing epic, global destruction to drain Earth’s molten core.

Jeff Goldblum’s wisecracking engineer David Levinson has been working with Catherine (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a psychiatrist studying humanity’s consciousness since the alien invasion, and Judd Hirsch is still around as his father, ferrying a school bus of children.

Brent Spiner’s eccentric Dr. Brakish Okun awakens from a coma with a bewildering alien-brain connection. And the former exotic dancer played by Vivica A. Fox is now a health-care worker.

Although the White House Oval Office is occupied by a female POTUS (Sela Ward), Bill Pullman’s former President Thomas H. Whitmore surfaces again, along with Maika Monroe as his daredevil daughter.

Other newbies comprise the Earth Space Defense Team, hotshot fighter pilots led by the late Capt. Hiller’s son, played by Jessie T. Usher, and his renegade rival Liam Hemsworth.

And the climactic battle with the immense, indomitable Alien Queen is lifted from “Aliens” (1986) in which Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) proved a far more formidable foe.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Independence Day: Resurgence” is a tedious 3 – failing even as a patriotic popcorn picture.

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