“This Side of the Impossible”

Susan Granger’s review of “This Side of The Impossible” (NY Int’l Fringe Festival, Aug. 2015)

 

Sebastian Boswell III’s mentalism show made its New York premiere at the 2015 International Fringe Festival in front of an audience of about 70 in a tiny basement experimental theater space called Under Saint Marks in the East Village.

Proclaiming himself “world-renowned,” Boswell declares that he is not a magician; instead, he claims to possess extraordinary powers as a result of a lifetime of study and travel. He credits Edmond Chastbury’s old tome about Thought Transference, explaining how words and images float on air waves.

Professing disdain for Harry Houdini, he claims to have been present when Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel created “The Andalusian Dog,” which he depicts with surrealist sock puppets.

Enlisting audience participation, Boswell begins his somewhat retro routine with counting cards and drawing exercises before proceeding to the highly-anticipated demonstrations of telekinesis, clairvoyance and extra-sensory perception, as practiced throughout history by fakirs and mystics.

During one, he swallowed a pill upon which he’d written some numbers, telling the audience he intended to regurgitate it – and then removed it from his eye. He followed that by pounding a 4-inch nail into his nostril with a hammer – and then extracting it with a pair of pliers.

While Boswell previously won “Best in Fest” at the 2014 San Francisco Fringe Festival, his pompous persona is a bit off-putting. When a performer assumes such an outrageously flamboyant character, he must commit 100%, otherwise it looks like a caricature.

On the other hand, Boswell’s mental agility is amazing, as are his effects, although – at a mere 45-50 minutes – this show seems a trifle short for the effort it takes to attend a New York International Fringe Festival event.

The New York Fringe Festival runs until August 30. If you missed Sebastian Boswell III in Manhattan, you can catch him at the 2015 San Francisco Fringe in September, introducing a new show, entitled “The Ineffable Experience of Impossible Achievements.”

“American Ultra”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Ultra” (Lionsgate)

 

This deranged action comedy has two things going for it: Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) and Kristen Stewart (“The Twilight Saga”). They’ll probably account for more box-office clout that this dreadful stoner dirge deserves.

As it opens, bruised and battered Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is in jail. Why? Flashbacks reveal he’s a clerk at a Cash & Carry who draws a graphic novel called Apollo Ape when he’s not busy behind the register.

A laidback pothead, he lives with his supportive girl-friend, slovenly Phoebe Larson (Stewart), who works for a bail bondsman.

Mike bought an engagement ring and planned to take Phoebe to Hawaii to propose marriage but, at the airport, he suffered another one of his crippling, yet inexplicable anxiety attacks.

Back in their rural West Virginia bungalow, slacker Mike gets ‘activated,’ meaning he suddenly becomes a super-soldier, killing two menacing hitmen with a spoon, making him the target of a CIA manhunt led by an uptight government agent, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who is determined to eliminate him.

“What if I’m a robot?” he wonders.

Borrowing from “Pineapple Express” as well as the Jason Bourne concept, it profiles a seemingly ordinary guy who discovers he’s covert sleeper agent, caught in a government conspiracy. But I’m afraid I’m making it sound more interesting than it really is, since getting from point A to point B is so tedious that I dozed off.

Sluggishly scripted by Max Landis (“Chronicle”) and repetitively directed by Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”), it re-teams Eisenberg with Stewart, hoping to re-ignite some of their “Adventureland” (2009) sizzle.

Connie Britton scores as Mike’s old CIA handler in the Ultra program, who tries to rescue him, while John Leguizamo does yet another crazed drug dealer, plus there’s Bill Pullman and Walter Goggins.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Ultra” is an ultra-violent, blood-splattered 3. Dopey in more ways than one, it’s amazingly awful.

03

“Rosenwald”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rosenwald” (Ciesla Foundation)

 

Although Julius Rosenwald was my great-grandfather, via my adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, I must confess I knew little about the extent of his amazing charitable work until I saw Aviva Kempner’s inspiring documentary.

Best known as chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, Julius Rosenwald was born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois. The son of German-Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a house directly across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s home.

As his department store/mail-order catalogue business grew, so did his awareness of the plight of African-Americans. Beginning in 1912, influenced by the writings of educator Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald funded more than 5,300 schools in rural areas of the Jim Crow South.

While Rosenwald donated seed money to build these schools, he insisted that local communities take an active part, either through fundraising or participating in the actual building process. When Ku Klux Klan members burned the schools down, Rosenwald quickly rebuilt them.

At one time, it was estimated that one in three black youths attended Rosenwald schools. Alums included W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Dr. Charles Drew, and Gordon Parks, along with Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, Anita Hill and scores of others.

Rosenwald also gifted to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and, so that graduates could find a place to live, he was influential in building non-discriminatory YMCAs in 25 cities.

Yet, he was such a modest man that when he endowed Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry, he refused to allow it to be named after him.

Until his death in 1932, Julius Rosenwald donated about $62 million. After desegregation in the 1960s, most of the rural schools were abandoned but now there’s a campaign to restore those that are left into community centers.

American filmmaker Aviva Kempner specializes in documentaries chronicling non-stereotypical images of Jews in history, like “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” about Gertrude Berg.

This time, she utilizes interviews with poet Maya Angelou, Congressman John Lewis, playwright/director George Wolfe, and civil rights leader Julian Bond – along with insightful revelations from Rosenwald biographers/family members Peter Ascoli and Stephanie Deutsch.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rosenwald” is an enlightening 8, detailing one man’s effective philanthropy.

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“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (Warner Bros.)

 

Originally a popular NBC-TV show in the mid-1960s, starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, this action adventure has been revived by Britain’s hyperkinetic Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”).

Set in 1963 in the midst of the Cold War, it introduces Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), a preposterously preening thief-turned-CIA agent, who is forced to team up with a gruff, no-nonsense KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hamer). Both have been culturally programmed to never trust one another.

Their mission is to prevent a nuclear bomb from falling into the hands of the wrong people; in this case, the evil menace is personified by glamorously haughty Victoria Vinciguerrra (Elizabeth Debicki), a wealthy Italian heiress/crime boss.

Because of her familial connections, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a high-spirited East German defector/car mechanic, is along for the ride, reluctantly posing as Kuryakin’s fiancé.

Humorlessly co-written by Lional Wigram and Guy Ritchie, who previously collaborated on two “Sherlock Holmes” films starring Robert Downey Jr., and elegantly photographed by John Mathieson, it’s notable, primarily, for its mod style, visual flair, and boldly crafted subtitles.

The actors look debonair in their bespoke suits, like male models in ‘60s GQ/VOGUE. The classy set design is magnificent, the catchy retro-score is period-perfect, and the stuntmen strut their stuff during the rapidly edited chase sequences. But it’s all superficial.

Problem is: perfectly chiseled Henry Cavill’s smug performance is as stiff and bland as his “Superman” outing. There’s no twinkle in his eye, no sense of amusement.

Over the years, George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Tom Cruise and others have been rumored to be attached to this cliché-riddled spy spoof which desperately needs some star-power propulsion.

Speaking of that, charismatic Hugh Grant is wasted in a small part as Waverly, the operation’s British liaison, a supervisory role played by Leo G. Carroll on the TV version.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a fashionable, yet forced 5 – and the fun has gone missing.

05

“Ricki and the Flash”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ricki and the Flash” (TriStar/Sony Pictures Entertainment)

 

Miraculous Meryl Streep can do anything, as she’s proven again and again on-screen. This time she plays Ricki Rendazzo, a middle-aged rock musician who, decades ago, left her husband and three young children, moving from Indianapolis to Los Angeles, seeking fame and fortune – neither of which she’s found.

Commitment-phobic Ricki fronts a Tarzana bar band called The Flash. That’s her night job. During the day, she cashiers at a chic grocery store, forced to smile and be cheery to every customer.

Suddenly, she’s summoned home to the Midwest by her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), to console their beleaguered daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) who attempted suicide after her husband left her.

Arriving, penniless, at Pete’s McMansion in a posh, gated community, where she’s remembered by her real-name of Linda Brummel, Ricki not only realizes that Julie is deeply depressed but also that Pete’s second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), the epitome of domesticity, has actually raised their children.

In addition, Ricki discovers that one of her sons is gay and the other is engaged to be married – only she’s not included in the wedding.

Written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”), who supposedly referenced her own musician mother-in-law, and directed by Jonathan Demme (“Rachel Getting Married”), this acerbic comic drama wavers unevenly between domestic angst and rock concertizing; its disparate elements are disrupting and disconcerting, diluting its essential humanity and emotional resonance.

Not surprisingly, Streep is superb as the convention-defying rebel, subconsciously seeking familial redemption. The nuanced scenes with her real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, sizzle with authenticity, as do her effective confrontations with Kevin Kline and Audra McDonald.

But an inordinate amount of time is devoted to Streep’s performing with pros like Rick Springfield, who plays her loyal lover/lead guitarist, along with sidemen Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale and Rick Rosas – the late bassist to whom the film is dedicated.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ricki and the Flash” is a contrived 6, a bit of a disappointment.

06

“Fantastic Four”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fantastic Four” (20th Century-Fox)

 

It’s a cinematic conundrum: why has there never been a good live-action version of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s iconic 1961 comic book, featuring the First Family of Marvel?

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) have been friends since their childhood on Long Island. So when nerdy Reed is recruited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) to devise a teleporter to take humans to another dimension, Ben joins him at his Manhattan research facility.

There’s also Dr. Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), plus a surly Latverian scientist, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).

Once the machine is tested on a chimpanzee, NASA’s Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) authorizes a manned mission. Problem is: when they plant an American flag on barren, alien territory, they’re engulfed by a green energy field that endows them with inexplicable physical powers.

Reed develops stretchy elastic limbs and Johnny can turn into a flaming torch. Ben is burdened with the Thing’s rocky body, while Victor goes berserk. Since Sue was left behind, she doesn’t get blasted with invisibility until they return to Earth.

This current reboot of the franchise that fizzled eight years ago has been plagued from the get-go. Apparently, Fox contractually had to quickly make another Marvel movie to retain rights to the characters.

Showing little creativity, screenwriters Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg, working with director Josh Trank (“Chronicle”), devised another cliché-crammed, awkwardly cheesy origin story with two up-and-coming actors: Miles Teller (“Whiplash,” “Insurgent”) and Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”).

After some bad previews, Trank impulsively Tweeted: “A year ago, I had a fantastic version of this. And it would have received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s the reality though.”

This is the third attempt, following Roger Corman’s unreleased 1994 version, then Tim Story’s “Fantastic Four” (2005) and “Rise of the Silver Surfer” (2007).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fantastic Four” is a flailing 2, another failure, proving that the Marvel name no longer guarantees blockbuster box-office.

02

 

 

 

“Shaun the Sheep”

Susan Granger’s review of “Shaun the Sheep” (Lionsgate Films)

 

After making his debut 20 years ago in Nick Park’s Oscar-winning “Wallace and Gromit” outing “A Close Shave,” Shaun the Sheep has become a British TV favorite. Now, he has his own full-length feature film.

For a rebellious ram, like Shaun (vocalized by Justin Fletcher), life at Mossy Bottom Farm can get a bit tiresome. Every day, the Farmer (vocalized by John Sparkes) and his loyal sheepdog Blitzer (also Sparkes) take Shaun and the rest of the flock to graze in the fields.

Determined to take a break from the daily drudgery, mischievous Shaun decides to take off for the Big City (think London). But then a series of accidents land the Farmer in the hospital, where a quirk of amnesia turns him into a celebrity hair stylist, employing his sheep-shearing skills to start new trends.

Back at the farm, amid other livestock, like opportunistic, hard-partying pigs and a conniving duck who accepts bread-bribes, Shaun and his bleating flock-mates realize they cannot reach their feed, which is stored high in the barn, so they join with their arch nemesis, Blitzer, to embark on a search to find the Farmer and bring him home.

Problem is: disguised as humans in the urban environment, they’re captured and incarcerated by Trumper, the Animal Control Officer (grunted by Omid Djalili).

Utilizing stop-motion Claymation, Britain’s Aardman Animators (“Chicken Run,” “The Pirates!”) devise an easy-to-understand, yet dialogue-free narrative, filled with sight gags, shop-sign puns, goofy sound effects and indecipherable gibberish that was cleverly created by writers/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, following a plot that’s curiously similar to “Babe: Pig in the City” (1998).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Shaun the Sheep” is an amusingly sweet 7, a wild and wooly adventure that’s shear fun for very young children.

07

“The Gift”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Gift” (STX Entertainment)

 

Australian actor Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom,” Warrior,” “The Great Gatsby”) makes an auspicious directorial debut with this taut psychological thriller.

It begins as Simon (Jason Bateman) and his sensitive wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) buy a mid-century modern, glass-encased house in Los Angeles, near the suburb where Simon grew up. They’ve moved from Chicago because Simon has a lucrative job opportunity as a sales executive at a computer security company.

While shopping for home furnishings, they encounter creepy Gordon Mosely (John Edgerton), who attended high school 20 years ago with Simon. Back then, Simon dubbed him “Gordo the Weirdo,” and his sad, lonely demeanor is still oddly ominous.

Inordinately eager to become friends, Gordo leaves a bottle of wine on their doorstep and stocks the koi pond near their front door with fish. To Simon’s dismay, he continues to drop by on one pretext or another when Simon is at work and Robyn is at home, where she does interior design via the Internet.

Eventually, Robyn sympathetically insists they accept a dinner invitation to Gordo’s expensive house, an evening which ends awkwardly with Simon declaring, “We would prefer that you don’t visit us anymore.”

But it’s not that easy. As Gordo says, “You are done with the past, but the past is not done with you.”

Do people really change with the passage of time? Can bygones ever be bygones?

Writer/director/producer Edgerton has crafted an intriguing story, exploring the malevolent consequences of teenage cruelty and ruthless bullying. Although there’s a scary moment in the shower when the viewer inevitably jumps, the slick, stylized tension builds slowly as the disturbing truth is gradually revealed.

Thematically, Edgerton treads in the footsteps of “Fatal Attraction,” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” and deceptive Alfred Hitchcock chillers, aided and abetted by sly, subtly astute performances by Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall and Edgerton himself, along with Eduard Grau’s cinematography and Luke Doolan’s editing.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Gift” is an electrifying 8, delivering a timely, turbulent twist.

08

“A LEGO Brickumentary”

Susan Granger’s review of “A LEGO Brickumentary” (Radius TWC)

 

Like the interlocking construction bricks, LEGO-maniacs come in all shapes and sizes, as demonstrated by documentarians Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge, who examine the LEGO phenomenon

Jason Bateman voices our genial mini-LEGO guide on this click-by-click, brick-by-brick journey showing how this simple, plastic toy has become a ubiquitous cultural icon, catapulting a small Danish company, founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, into a $4 billion business that once nearly folded.

Apparently, in the late 1900s and early 2000s, LEGO focused on producing specialized theme sets, based on “Harry Potter,” “Star Trek,” and “Lord of the Rings,” among others. But there was no natural demographic. As a result in 2003, LEGOs popularity declined. When the company listened to its customers and reverted to its original concept, sales rebounded.

Then “The LEGO Movie” (2014) became an animation favorite, reminding us how playing was absolutely awesome.

Now, stop-motion LEGO animation is a YouTube phenomenon. Artist Nathan Sawaya specializes in LEGO sculptures, and a Seattle mom named Alice Finch has won the top prize at three consecutive LEGO conventions for creating a fantastically detailed model of Rivendale, the “Lord of the Rings” Elven village, utilizing more than 200,000 bricks.

Stephen Pakbaz, one of the NASA engineers behind the Mars Curiosity rover, built a LEGO replica that is now sold as a LEGO set, and Dr. Daniel LeGoff, a New Jersey psychologist, uses LEGOs to help autistic children communicate with one another.

Plus there are testimonials from “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker, pop musician Ed Sheeran and NBA player Dwight Howard, among others.

An interesting sidebar reveals how a life-sized X-Wing Starfighter – encompassing eight tons of bricks – was built in Denmark over a period of 17,000 hours and then shipped to Times Square to coincide with Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” promotion.

FYI: There was once a LEGO factory, offering tours, in Enfield, CT, but it’s now closed.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A LEGO Brickumentary” is a family-friendly 5 – a 90-minute infomercial.

05

“The Stanford Prison Experiment”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (Sandbar Pictures)

 

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez examines the psychological research conducted in August, 1971, by Dr. Philip Zimbardo and funded, in part, by the U.S. Dept. of Naval Research.

Zimbardo randomly divided 24 Stanford University students into prisoners and guards and placed them in an improvised prison in the basement of Jordan Hall, paying them $15 a day to participate.

Almost immediately, as the volunteers assumed their assigned roles, they exhibited behavior that reflected distress and despair, abuse and degrading, sexualized humiliation, proving how situation shapes conduct.

As one of Zimbardo’s graduate-student assistants says, “I don’t think we can call this an experiment anymore. It’s a demonstration.”

Taught in journalism classes today, this notorious study illustrates questionable methodology/ethics, the frightening pliability of reality, and the effects of power in all its permutations. It’s another “Lord of the Flies.”

Adapted by Tim Talbott from Zimbardo’s 2007 book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” it’s a horrifying re-enactment, featuring Billy Crudup as imperious, often patronizing, Zimbardo who later served as an expert witness in one of the Abu Ghraib trials.

Ezra Miller (“Trainwreck”) delivers a memorable performance as rebellious Prisoner #8612, along with Michael Angarano (“The Knick”) as the cocky, manipulative guard who adopts a John Wayne persona, complete with swagger and Southern drawl.

And there’s a simmering class/race undercurrent, epitomized by Zimbardo’s ‘consultant,’ Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), an ex-con who spent 17 years in San Quentin.

Working closely with Alvarez, cinematographer Jas Shelton emphasizes the claustrophobia with tight close-ups and tracking shots up and down the hall.

Unfortunately, there are no backstories about the students, except poor Prisoner #2093 (Chris Sheffield), who was living in his car for the summer.

And the muddled third act wavers between ambiguity and cautionary oratory, followed by a bewildering epilogue that seems at odds with the rest of the narrative. It’s amazing that Zimbardo and the University weren’t sued by the subjects.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is an intense, provocative 6, as role-playing goes horribly awry.

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