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“Cirque du Soliel: Amaluna”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cirque du Soliel: Amaluna” (CitiField)

 

I’ve been privileged to see all the Cirque du Soliel shows that have played in New York which is why I regret to report that “Amaluna” is a deafening disappointment. If you’ve never visited the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau, it may be a pleasant distraction but, if you’ve been enchanted by its previous eloquence and elegance, this production doesn’t measure up. And the decibel volume may blast you out of your seat.

Claiming inspiration from Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” writer/director Diane Paulus (“Pippin”) has created a feminist spin but the empowerment concept never really becomes clear. Prospera (Julie McInnes) is an enchantress, ruling over a kingdom of mythical beasts, Amazons and goddesses drawn from various cultural traditions. There’s the Moon Goddess (Andreanne Nadeau), the Peacock Goddess (Amy McClendon) and the Balance Goddess (Lily Chao), among others. When Prospera’s contortionist daughter Miranda (Ikhertseteg Bayarsaikan) comes of age, she creates a massive storm that shipwrecks sailors, including Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin). Enraged by the immediate attraction between Miranda and Romeo is the jealous lizard/man Cali (Viktor Kee), who wants Miranda for himself. So far, so good – but in Act II, the plot gets completely muddled, involving kidnapping, lovers in Purgatory and a Valkyrie rescue. To make matters worse, the tedious ineptitude of the clowns (Nathalie Clause, Shereen Hickman) adds to the annoyance.

As always, the aerial acrobatics are amazing and Meredith Caron’s costumes are dazzling. But the screeching, wailing grunge and folk rock score by the Canadian duo Bob & Bill comes across like loud, dissonant noise.

FYI:  Previously, I’ve received a pass to the Tapas Rouge (VIP area). This year, we paid: big mistake. It’s a tiny space, crammed with people grabbing drinks and gobbling mediocre hors d’ouvres – with no place to stand or sit. Not worth the money.

“Amaluna” runs through May 18, 2014, at Citi Field, Flushing, Queens. For information, visit www.cirquedusoliel.com/amaluna or call 1-800-450-1480. Bring ear plugs!

“Sabotage”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sabotage” (Open Road Films)

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, veteran leader of a dauntless squad of grubby undercover DEA agents, who discovers, after effectively hiding the 10 million dollars they skimmed off after a massive raid of the “money room” at a Mexican drug cartel safe house, that someone has heisted the cash which was hidden inside a sewer line, leaving a single bullet in its place. During the subsequent official inquiry by the FBI, they’re all suspended from duty.

By the time Breacher re-assembles the eccentric group after the lengthy layoff, they have grown suspicious and resentful of one another. There’s Joe “Grinder” Phillips (Joe Manganiello), Eddie “Neck” Jordan (Josh Holloway), Julius “Sugar” Edmonds (Terrence Howard), Tom “Pyro” Roberts (Max Martini), Bruce “Tripod” McNeely (Kevin Vance), along with impulsive, substance-abusing Lizzy (Mireille Enos) and James “Monster” Murray (Sam Worthington), her similarly addicted husband. Chomping on a massive cigar, resolute Breacher gives his crew a pep talk, vowing vengeance. Then, one-by-one, they start suffering violent fatal ‘accidents’.  One is killed after his motor home – with him inside – is parked on a Georgia railroad line and demolished by a train – another is nailed to the kitchen ceiling in a crucifixion pose. Meanwhile, brooding Breacher, who is coping with a guilty memory from his own brutal past, gets close to skeptical Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), an Atlanta homicide investigator.

Confusingly, yet predictably co-scripted by Skip Woods (“Swordfish”) and director David Ayers (“End of Watch”), who say they were inspired by Agatha Christie’s classic mystery “And Then There Were None,” it’s ghastly and gruesome, eschewing logic and reason, concentrating, instead, on repellent details of extreme violence and dismemberment. Action scenes are abundantly grisly and gory, as bloated corpses are poked and prodded, eliciting protruding viscera.

Indeed, the entire deceitful concept is so repugnant that competent actors like Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard and Sam Worthington should seriously consider changing agents.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sabotage” is a flimsy, testosterone-fueled 4, destined to become a muddled stop on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mucho-macho comeback tour.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

Susan Granger’s review of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (Disney)

 

Marvel’s new cinematic adventure not only continues the superhero saga but also plunges into a Cold War conspiracy which could deliver covert technology into the hands of an enemy agent.  Set two years after “The Avengers” alien attack in New York, U.S. Army Officer Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) becomes a target when he makes a discovery that could endanger the entire planet.

Rogers becomes suspicious about corruption within S.H.I.E.L.D. when the Secretary of the World Security Council, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), reveals top-secret plans for Project Insight, involving three, huge, high-tech drone-like “helicarriers” that float in the atmosphere instead of the ocean, insidiously spying eyes-in-the-sky.  “This isn’t freedom; this is fear,” Rogers tells Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who warns Cap, “Trust no one.”

Working with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Rogers also enlists a former Iraq/Afghanistan paratrooper, Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who is able to swoop around using giant wings. The titular bad guy is a brainwashed Russian assassin known as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who turns out to be someone Rogers knew ‘way-back-when.

Based on Ed Brubaker’s comic book series and scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely,, the quirky plot is convoluted yet adroitly directed by brothers Anthony and John Russo (TV’s “Arrested Development” and “Community”), who will be helming “Captain America 3.” To their credit, the Russos enhance not only the individual characters but also relevant contemporary themes of surveillance, security and control – versus liberty.  Unfortunately, they over-use the shaky cam in repetitive, even confusing action sequences.

While Chris Evans doesn’t have the acting chops of Robert Downy Jr., Robert Redford gives inherent gravitas and it’s fun to spot Stan Lee in a cameo as a hapless Smithsonian security guard. Don’t leave the theater before watching the two teasers embedded in the end credits, the first directed by Joss Whedon, who helms “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” scheduled for May, 2015.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a spy-centric 7, a timely, intriguing espionage thriller.

“Noah”

Susan Granger’s review of “Noah” (Paramount Pictures)

 

The Biblical flood is the original apocalypse story – which filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler,” “Pi”) creatively re-interprets with a timely, resonant, ecological doomsday message.

Beginning with a revisionist line from Genesis: “In the beginning, there was nothing,” it positions Noah (Russell Crowe) as a righteous vegetarian, the recipient of ‘visions’ from the Creator.  After conferring with his hermit-like grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), he works with his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), along with orphaned Ila (Emma Watson), to build an Ark. They’re assisted by the Watchers, or Fallen Angels (voiced by Nick Nolte, Frank Langella and Mark Margolis).  Evil is personified by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), pagan descendant of the Bible’s first fratricidal sinner, who killed Noah’s father and continues to cause problems throughout the epic tale, as rains pour down for 40 days and 40 nights, drowning the rest of humanity – while deeply-conflicted Noah wrestles with inner demons in his desire to respect and obey what the Creator commands. (The word ‘God’ is never mentioned.)

Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly worked together before in “A Beautiful Mind,” and their emotional rapport is palpable, helping idiosyncratic writer/director Darren Aronofsky, co-scripting with Ari Handel, to boldly break away from old-fashioned, clichéd perceptions from previous Biblical epics and traditional religious art. Rich in characters and subplots, it is overwrought at times, as the uneven melodramatic floodwaters get choppy.

The highlight of production designer Mark Friedberg’s fantastical concept is the rectangular-shaped Ark, accurate down to the last cubit. This 75-foot-high, 45-foot-wide, 450-foot-long, boxy barge was constructed on a five-acre grassy field in a state park in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Amplified by time-lapse photography and montage editing, Matthew Libatique’s cinematography adroitly blends live action with awesome computer-generated imagery, particularly when Earth’s ‘innocent’ birds and beasts, arrive two-by-two. But it’s unfortunate that the giant CGI Watches resemble prehistoric, rock-encrusted Transformers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Noah” sails in with an unconventional, yet totally accessible 8, an incredible spectacle.

“The Lunchbox”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lunchbox” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Set in contemporary Mumbai, this is a classic romance about strangers who fall in love via letters, although it all comes about through miscommunication.

After working for 35 years as a bureaucratic government claims processor, Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is nearing retirement. He’s a lonely widower with little joy in his life. Then one day, he opens his tin lunchbox, only to discover it’s not his. It was mis-delivered to him by one of the 5,000 white-capped dabbwallas, energetic delivery men whose task is distributing to the workplace hot lunches prepared by wives at home. Instead of his usual drab, store-bought fare, this particular meal was prepared by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), the neglected wife of a workaholic businessman (Nakul Vaid) who pays more attention to his cellphone than to her. Following the advice of her “Auntie,” Mrs. Deshpande (Bharati Achrekar), Ila has concocted a delicious repast that’s filled with spices intended to reignite passion. And it succeeds. Soon Saajan and Ila are exchanging inquisitive, then revealing, even intimate, handwritten messages via the daily lunchbox. Until Ila realizes she needs to meet her confidante Sajaan to decide whether to stay in her loveless marriage.

“You let me into your dreams, and I want to thank you for that,” Saajan says.

Familiar to American audiences from his roles in “Life of Pi,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Namesake” Irrfan Khan is an extraordinarily versatile Bollywood star. He’s perfectly cast by debuting writer/director Ritesh Batra’s, whose charming, compassionate, epistolary concept is reminiscent of “You’ve Got Mail” and “The Shop Around the Corner” – with a special appeal for foodies. Strong on relationship details, including Saajan’s cheerful apprentice/trainee, Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and atmosphere, courtesy of cinematographer Michael Simmonds, Batra also offers insight into India’s traditional culture (Hindu, Muslim and Christian) when it comes to social relationships between men and women.

In Hindu with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lunchbox” is a subtly savory 7, providing nourishment for the soul.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Fox Searchlight)

 

Set in 1932 in an opulent Alpine spa in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, Wes Anderson’s comedic caper revolves around the eloquent, esteemed concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and his protégé, earnest lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).  Apparently, elderly Countess Celine Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis – a.k.a. Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) – left an invaluable treasure to M. Gustave instead of her own villainous offspring – and the tale-within-a-tale is told through flashbacks.

So it begins with a contemporary prologue as an aging author (Tom Wilkinson) recalls an evening in 1968, when he (Jude Law, as his younger self) dined with elderly Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in the once-majestic hotel, learning how an incident 50 years earlier changed his life.

When Madame D. dies at her nearby estate, M. Gustave, a legendary lothario, acquires a priceless Renaissance painting, “Boy with Apple,” becoming the prime suspect in her murder, according to Madame’s devious son Dimitri (Adrien Brody), his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) and policeman Henkels (Edward Norton). That launches a noir quest to discover whodunit, which intensifies when Madame’s executor (Jeff Goldblum) is found dead, and M. Gustave escapes from prison using tiny sledgehammers and pickaxes smuggled past the guards inside delicate frosted pastries, baked by Zero’s beloved Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). That ignites an antic, Marx Brothers-like chase sequence in which M. Gustave and Zero sled downhill in pursuit of a villain on skis.

Inspired by the works of Viennese novelist/playwright Stefan Zweig and a nostalgic story conceived with Hugh Guinness, writer/director Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Royal Tennenbaums,” “Rushmore”) concocts a delightfully original, bittersweet, slyly campy saga of murder, theft and conspiracy.  Adam Stockhausen’s production design is magnificent and cinematographer Robert Yeoman photographs each timeframe is in a different aspect-radio, enhanced by Alexandre Desplat’s score. Plus, there are farcical cameos from Wes Anderson’s regulars:  Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an imaginative, impressionistic 8. Check out this whimsical, madcap romp.

“Divergent”

Susan Granger’s review of “Divergent” (Summit/Lionsgate)

 

According to psychologists, one of the most stressful aspects of adolescence is finding acceptance within a peer group. The need to belong has been the basis for popular young-adult fiction like “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games,” even the “Harry Potter” series.

In a futuristic, sci-fi world, 16 year-olds are divided into five distinctive factions, based on hallucinatory tests and simulations that determine their dominant personality trait.  There’s Dauntless for the brave, Abnegation for the selfless, Amity for the peaceful, Candor for the honest and Erudite for the intelligent. If you’re not born into or choose to join any of these groups, or you’ve been expelled, you’re abandoned to survive on your own in the mean streets.

Problem is: in post-war Chicago, Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Shailene Woodley), the daughter of an Abnegation official (Tony Goldwyn) and a nurturing mother (Ashley Judd), doesn’t fit into just one category.  According to her examiner (Maggie Q), she’s a Divergent, and that’s a secret she must guard with her life, because the government is determined to eliminate all Divergents as threats to the organized social order.  Although Tris’ twin brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) decides to join the Erudites on Choosing Day, Kris opts for the warrior Dauntless.  While she’s befriended by Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and mercilessly taunted by Peter (Miles Teller), her initiate instructor is Four (Theo James), who admires her grit.  But Tris’ most formidable adversary is Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), the ambitious, power-hungry leader of the Erudites.

Based on Veronica Roth’s trilogy (“Divergent,” “Insurgent,” “Allegiant”), it’s adapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor. Director Neil Burger is so burdened by the necessary exposition to ensure a future franchise that, despite the betrayals and surprises, a sense of excitement and urgency doesn’t kick in until too late.

Having scored in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” charismatic Shailene Woodley proves a formidable heroine, demonstrating admirable athleticism in her ferociously fearless determination to forge her own identity.

Yet, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Divergent” is a disappointing 6, seeming a bit stale after other dystopian escapades.

“Muppets Most Wanted”

Susan Granger’s review of “Muppets Most Wanted” (Walt Disney Studios)

 

The prophetic opening musical number – “We’re Doing a Sequel…It’s what we do in Hollywood, though it’s never quite as good” – heralds Jim Henson’s fuzzy fellows’ new, globe-trotting crime caper.

Beginning where their previous film ended, the Muppets are on Hollywood Boulevard celebrating their reunion. Meanwhile, across the globe, nefarious forces are at work.  An evil Kermit lookalike named Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel) has escaped from Gulag 38B and concocted a diabolical scheme with Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), a talent manager whose surname is pronounced “Bad-jee.”  Dominic convinces the Muppets to go on an international tour, telling them, “I want you to conquer the world.”

Not coincidentally, every grand European theater they’re booked into just happens to be near a bank or museum that can be robbed during their performance. Their first gig is in Germany, where they’re a bit disconcerted by billboards heralding “Die Muppets.”  But when they arrive in Berlin, Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire) is kidnapped and shipped to Siberia, where his Gulag is commanded by Nadya (Tina Fey), a musical comedy-obsessed prison guard.  Disguised as Kermit, Constantine ardently woos Miss Piggy, fostering her fantasy of a lavish European wedding at the Tower of London, where the Crown Jewels are kept.  On their trail are bumbling Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) and Sam the Eagle, while courageous Kermit concocts a Von Trapp-like escape during a talent show, arriving at the nuptial altar just in time to allow Miss Piggy to discern which frog is the real croaker.

Co-scripted by Nicholas Stollar and director James Bobin with songwriter Bret McKenzie, it’s reminiscent of “The Great Muppet Caper” (1981), as the felt-covered friends once again frolic with a host of celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Sean Combs, Zach Galifianakis, Salma Hayek, Saoirse Ronan and Frank Langella. Most memorably, Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo and Jermaine Clement sing and Christoph Waltz waltzes.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Muppets Most Wanted” is a swift-paced, smartly spoofy 7. Family-friendly, it’s mistaken identity fun.

“Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club” (Lionsgate)

 

Before taking a hiatus from movie-making to focus on television, prolific, Atlanta-based filmmaker Tyler Perry turns his attention to a group of single mothers who, despite their socio-economic differences, turn to one another for support, reflecting the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.

After their troubled preteens have misbehaved at an elite Atlanta prep school and are facing expulsion, the moms are summoned to a parent-principal conference where they’re punished for their children’s transgressions by being forced to organize a dance and fundraiser. And anyone who’s ever served time in the PTA knows how tedious that can be. So the five disparate women band together to pay their penitence, forming a baby-sitting service for one another, taking turns so the other four can enjoy a night out and, perhaps, romance.

There’s May (Nia Long), a struggling journalist/aspiring novelist whose husband has disappeared; Hillary (Amy Smart), a pampered, newly divorced socialite who is forced to fire her nanny; Esperanza (Zulay Henao), who is afraid she’ll lose financial support from her sleazy ex-husband (Eddie Cibran) if she gets serious about her devoted boyfriend (William Levy); Lytia (Cocoa Brown), a sassy, struggling Waffle House waitress whose two older children are in prison, while her youngest son is on scholarship at the exclusive school; and Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), an uptight, ambitious publishing company executive who, coincidentally, recently turned down May’s manuscript for being “too black.”

While writer/director/producer Tyler Perry dutifully integrates their individual stories, the syrupy characters are, nevertheless, one-dimensional and clichéd. As a result, the pace is inconsistent and plodding, leading to a far-too-tidy conclusion. According to Perry, his aunt served as inspiration, having raised four boys by herself and never taking welfare. “This is my homage to her and every single mother out there,” Perry says.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club” is a formulaic 4, a contrived, heavy-handed melodrama about camaraderie and the value of female solidarity.

 

“Bad Words”

Susan Granger’s review of “Bad Words” (Focus Features)

 

Jason Bateman (“Identity Thief”) makes his feature directorial debut and stars in this crude, rude, dark comedy about 40 year-old Guy Trilby (Bateman), a proofreader with a photographic memory, who takes advantage of a technical loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill national spelling bee and declares his eligibility because he never completed eighth grade.

In the regional competitions, self-righteous parents are understandably angry when abrasive, yet verbally agile Trilby gleefully triumphs over their uber-bright adolescents, many of whom have been studying assiduously for years – while the furious tournament administrator, Dr. Deagan (Alison Janney), and its dignified director, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall), do everything within their power to disqualify him.  Trilby’s merciless victories catch the attention of dowdy Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), an online news reporter who is curious about his underlying motives.  But then, on an airplane en route to the finals in Los Angeles, Trilby is befriended by a polite, sweetly precocious contestant, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), whose father pressures him to win at all costs.  Their clandestine evening excursions, which include shoplifting and vandalism, set to the music of the Beastie Boys, form the epitome of inappropriately disreputable fun.

Working from a screenplay by Andrew Dodge, Jason Bateman obviously relishes his antihero’s ferocious, foul-mouthed insults and mean-spirited intimidations. Both screenwriter and director credit the Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound” (2002) for inspiration and insight into the insular, arcane world of elite spelling-bees – with their elaborate protocols.  And the words chosen to test the smartest competitors are among the most obscure, many almost unpronounceable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bad Words” is a surprising, subtly subversive 7, the most misanthropic comedy since “Bad Santa.”