“The Lobster”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lobster” (A24 Pictures)

 

Without doubt, this is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen!

Set in the near future in an alternate universe, it’s an existential allegory about the determination within every culture to pair people off. Whether heterosexual or homosexual, conforming means being part of a couple.

When his wife leaves him for another man, David (Colin Farrell) has only 45 days to find another partner or face ‘Transformation’ into the animal of his choice. Most people want to be a dog, which is why there are so many of them. But David chooses to be re-embodied as a lobster.

To facilitate finding a prospective mate, David checks into a spa-like Hotel, where the Manager (Olivia Coleman) sternly explains the regimented schedule required of him  and other newcomers – there’s one who lisps (John C. Reilly), another who limps (Ben Whishaw), a woman prone to nosebleeds (Jessica Barden) and one who is heartless (Aggeliki Papoulia).

While a maid facilitates sexual arousal, masturbation is forbidden. Not surprisingly, the guests grow increasingly desperate under the pressure to find a compatible companion. When a match is made, there’s a party and ‘honeymoon’ of sorts. If couples subsequently disagree, children are pressed upon them.

“It usually helps,” declares the Manager.

With his crustacean reincarnation looming, David flees into the forest, joining ‘The Loners,’ a resistance group. Their militant leader (Lea Seydoux) enforces her own set of Kafkaesque rules, forbidding any relationships.

Then David meets his real soulmate (Rachel Weisz) – but is it too late?

Greek writer/director Yorgos Lathimos first garnered recognition with his Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” (2009) about three grown children raised in seclusion by their parents. His follow-up “Alps” (2012) explored the grieving process. Co-written with Efthimis Filippou, this is his first English-language film.

Weird to the extreme, it’s, perhaps, the opposite of a melodrama. The acting is almost forcibly restrained as the grim, unconventional situation grows increasingly more primitive and punitive.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lobster” is a strange, surreal 7, an audacious, absurdist satire.

07

“Alice Through the Looking Glass”

Susan Granger’s review of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (Disney)

 

Bearing little resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s literary sequel, this live-action fantasy begins in 1874 with Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) as an intrepid sea captain, cleverly evading pirates en route back to London – as though she’d been taught by Capt. Jack Sparrow.

Arriving home, Alice must choose between losing the Wonder, her late father’s merchant vessel, or leaving her widowed mother (Lindsay Duncan) homeless. Familial business dealings grow tedious until the familiar blue butterfly, Absolem (voiced by Alan Rickman), leads Alice through a large mirror…a.k.a. Looking Glass.

Back in Underland, Alice finds her eccentric friend, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), deeply depressed, mourning the loss of his Hightopp family. If she can travel back through the “Sea of Time,” Alice might be able to save them from the Jabberwocky, but that involves stealing the whirling Chronosphere belonging to Time (mustache-twirling Sacha Baron Cohen).

That cues a myriad of verbal and visual gags about the nature of time. Seconds are tiny mechanical creatures that turn into larger minutes as “Time waits for no man” and “Time is not on your side.”

As part of her quest, Alice discovers how a sinister childhood deception triggered the huge-headed Red Queen’s (Helena Bonham Carter) petulant anger toward her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

While screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“Maleficent”) has endeavored to create backstories for many of Lewis Carroll’s classic characters – with a nod to Victorian-era feminism, James Bobin (“The Muppets”), taking over from Tim Burton as director, injects too many steampunk distractions from the implausible, incoherent plot.

Tilting a bit too far toward the bizarre, Johnny Depp, his pupils dilated to psychedelic proportions, is almost unrecognizable under creepy clown makeup, topped with a shock of orange hair.

But the lavish, candy-colored CGI visuals are dazzling, particularly glimpses of Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas voices both), White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is a curiously confusing, simplistic 6, an expensive extravaganza.

06

“Weiner”

Susan Granger’s review of “Weiner” (Sundance Selects)

 

Perhaps it’s not surprising that in this tumultuous political season, disgraced former Brooklyn-Queens Congressman Anthony Weiner is the topic of a new documentary by his ex-chief-of-staff Josh Kriegman.

In 2011, Weiner resigned from his seven-term House of Representatives seat because of an infamous sexting scandal. Two years later, ever-ambitious Weiner, seeking rehabilitation, decides to enter the New York City Mayoral race.

When then-supporters Josh Kreigman and Elyse Steinberg propose chronicling Weiner’s run for occupancy of Gracie Mansion, they’re given unprecedented access, staying with him once a second wave of sexting revelations broke.

Central to the salacious story is Anthony Weiner’s wife, Hillary Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin, a steely- self-possessed woman who obviously wanted to be New York’s First Lady.

“She was very eager to get her life back that I had taken from her,” he confesses, taking full blame for the harm he caused.

“If Huma can forgive, who am I to hold a grudge,” says one supporter.

But once the campaign gets underway, bawdier transcripts and lewd crotch pictures surface under Weiner’s pseudonym “Carlos Danger.” Those revelations, coupled with his abrasive, confrontational volatility, torpedo his chances.

As Marshall McLuhan said, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

Since Anthony Weiner obviously brought this on himself, one cannot help but feel for Huma Abedin as she endures a second round of public humiliation, retreating to their $12,000-a-month Park Avenue South apartment.

Although the filmmakers were inexperienced, their collaboration with editor Eli B. Despres (“Blackfish”) is revelatory, particularly when Weiner sneaks through a McDonald’s and up a back stairway to avoid contact with sexting pal/porn star Sydney Leathers, lurking outside, before making his concession speech on Election Night, 2013. After conceding, Weiner arrogantly gives the finger to photographers.

And Donald Trump declares, “We don’t want perverts elected in New York City. No perverts!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Weiner” is a shame-filled 7, relating an excruciating political suicide.

07

“X-Men: Apocalypse”

Susan Granger’s review of “X-Men: Apocalypse” (20th Century Fox)

 

Helming his fourth “X-Men” movie, Bryan Singer once again wrangles Marvel’s mutants through another adventure, set 10 years after “Days of Future Past” (2014).

This time, the super-villain is Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), supposedly the world’s first and most powerful mutant, known as invincible/immortal En Sabah Nur, who ruled ancient Egypt circa. 3600 B.C. before being entombed in an immense pyramid – until he awakens in 1983 at the height of the Cold War in the Reagan era.

After hibernating for 5,500 years, the petulant Pharaoh is not a happy camper, now that “the weak have taken over.”

Vowing to “wipe clean this world,” he solicits disillusioned Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and his colleagues Warren Worthington/Archangel (Ben Hardy), Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp) into becoming his legendary “four horsemen.”

Working with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) enlists rejuvenated Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy), who supplies younger versions of psychic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, a.k.a. Sansa Stark in TV’s “Game of Thrones”) and laser-eyed Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) from his School for Gifted Children, along with Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Jubilation Lee/Jubilee (Lana Condor).

Working with screenwriters Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris, director Bryan Singer utilizes his 16 years of experience with this franchise as he desperately tries to blend multiple time-shifting, semi-coherent plotlines with remarkable CGI, particularly those of Quicksilver and Nightcrawler.

Problem is: there’s no character development, which means no emotional investment. Previous installments focused on the love/hate relationship between Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier; there’s too little of that here.

Plus, Singer mixes and matches so many spandex-clad mutants with a myriad of mystical powers that it’s confusing. Even Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) does a clawed cameo.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is a fatiguing 5, filled with a mediocre multitude of mutants.

05

“Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”

Susan Granger’s review of “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” (Universal Pictures)

 

This comedy sequel tackles the provocative question of whether sororities still lack the basic American freedom to party that Greek fraternities have enjoyed for decades.

“In the United States, sororities are not allowed to throw parties in their own houses,” lectures Phi Lambda’s president (Selena Gomez), “Only frats can.”

When pot-smoking freshman pledge Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) hears this, she decides to start her own independent sorority, Kappa Nu, recruiting a rebellious gang of renegade misfits, including Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein).

Perplexed by the dilemma of paying $5,000 in rent, she consults dim-witted, former beefcake fratboy Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), who is having his own “quarter-life crisis” since his Abercrombie & Fitch employers expect him to wear a shirt, concealing his chiseled abs.

Problem is: the rented Kappa Nu mansion is located next-door to Mac (Seth Rogen) and pregnant-again Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) who desperately want to move away. The Radner home is currently in escrow, so the new owners have 30 days to make random inspections and back out of any reason.

Although the quiet-loving Radners politely ask the Greek girls to quell the partying for a month, it’s impossible to curb their enthusiastic pranks. So, eventually, Mac and Kelly have to discard diplomacy and call in Sanders to help them drive the sorority sisters out.

Scripted by Andrew J. Cohen, Brandan O’Brien, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and director Nicholas Stoller, it’s a raw, raunchy re-tread. Predictably, the gross-out gags, ribald humor and action pieces don’t work as well as in its 2014 predecessor.

“When we started researching how sororities work, we were shocked at how sexist the system was,” Goldberg said. As Canadians, he and Rogen assumed sororities gave parties just like the frats did. That’s when they discovered that the National Panhellenic Conference prohibits drinking in its 26 member sororities. No alcohol means no parties, unless they’re co-hosted with fraternities.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” is a feminist 5, reflecting a frustrating, gender-based double standard.

05

“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