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“Closer to the Moon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Closer to the Moon” (IFC Films)

 

In Bucharest in 1959, a disillusioned group of old friends from the WWII Jewish Resistance hijack a van delivering cash to the Romanian National Bank, staging the robbery so it looks like a movie shoot – which fascinates a young onlooker, a café waiter named Virgil (Henry Lloyd).

In time, the four men and a woman are arrested, tried in a kangaroo court and convicted. While waiting for their execution, they’re forced by the Securitate – a.k.a. Romanian secret police – to re-enact the robbery in a slyly anti-Semitic propaganda film depicting the crime.

Meanwhile – being in the right place at the right time – enables Virgil to become an eager assistant to an alcoholic Romanian film director (Allan Corduner) and, later, he’s the cameraman assigned to chronicle the re-enactment which is supervised by bumbling bureaucrats.

Exhibiting remarkable camaraderie, the intrepid Rosenthal gang, as they’re called, consists of Max (Mark Strong), the chief police inspector; Alice (Vera Farmiga), a political-science academic; Iorgu (Christian McKay), a history professor; Dumi (Tim Plester), a rocket scientist; and Razvan (Joe Armstrong), a respected journalist.

But what prompted them to steal bags of banknotes that were worthless outside of Romania? Was it a Zionist plot that failed? Was it a conspiracy to get money to send Jews to Israel? Why did they commit such a heinous crime – one they realized would inevitably lead to the death penalty?

Eventually, only Virgil will know the real answer to these questions, as flashbacks reveal a secret that the Communist authorities never discovered.

Based on a true story, the provocative, darkly comedic, absurdist drama is cleverly written and boldly directed by Nae Caranfil, who has chosen to have the cast – energetically propelled by Farmiga and Strong – speak English instead of Romanian.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Closer to the Moon” is a fascinating 7 – with glimpses of the real documentary over the closing credits.

“An American in Paris”

Susan Granger’s review of “An American in Paris” (Palace Theater, April, 2014)

 

A nostalgic romance set in 1944, right after the liberation of Paris post-W.W. II, this re-crafted, modernized version of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 Oscar-winning film is glorious, opulent – and thoroughly captivating.

Dazzling dancer Robert Fairchild of the New York City Ballet plays Jerry Mulligan, an amiable ex-G.I. who has decided to remain in Paris because he wants to be a painter. But first he befriends sardonic pianist Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz) and charming Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), who yearns to be a cabaret star, although his domineering mother (Veanne Cox) wants him to settle down, go into the family textiles business and marry Lise Dassin, an aspiring ballerina.

Director/choreographer Christopher Wheedon was wise to find a bona fide French girl to play the pivotal role of Lise. Plucked from Britain’s Royal Ballet, Leanne Cope’s waif-like Lise turns out to be the elusive woman all three of the men desire, unbeknownst to one another.

Playwright Craig Lucas has amplified Alan Jay Lerner’s wispy storyline with mumblings about the German Occupation, Nazis, Vichy, swastikas and the Resistance. Jill Paice plays Milo Davenport, a predatory American art patron who not only supports Jerry’s painting but bankrolls a ballet to be composed by Adam, designed by Jerry, starring Lise.

What’s most memorable are the music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, including classics like “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” But Not For Me,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” adapted and arranged by Rob Fisher.

Complete with elaborate staircase and plumed show girls, Max von Essen’s extravagantly staged “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” is taken almost completely from the vintage Technicolor movie which – in case you forgot – starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse and Oscar Levant.

Set and costume designer Bob Crowley creates the essential elegance that befits the indomitable City of Light – with its Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and banks of the Seine, bathed in Natasha Katz’s rippling light, and amplified by visuals from 59 Productions.

But make no mistake: “An American in Paris” is ballet-centric, not merely dance, not a series of beautiful, moving tableaux, but an exhilarating, emotional whole, melding all the artistic genres in the extended, climactic fantasy. As a brilliant, new Broadway musical, it’s is a triumph!

 

“Gigi”

Susan Granger’s review of “Gigi” (Neil Simon Theater: April, 2015)

 

Back in 1944, French novelist Colette wrote a naughty novella about a naïve Parisian teenager being groomed by her grandmother for a career as a high-class courtesan and her unexpected relationship with Gaston, the worldly, wealthy playboy who eventually marries her.

It became a 1949 French film before Anita Loos (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) adapted it for the stage, introducing gamine Audrey Hepburn in the title role. In 1958, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady”) revised it, adding music for Vincent Minnelli’s opulent screen version, starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan and Maurice Chevalier, which won nine Oscars, including Best Picture. In 1973, Lerner and Loewe attempted a stage musical, which flopped.

Now, British playwright Heidi Thomas (BBC’s “Call the Midwife”) and director Eric Schaeffer (“Follies”) have drained every drop of Gallic charm out of Lerner & Loewe’s concept, sanitizing Colette’s unsavory story and re-casting it with bland, squeaky-clean Americans who don’t even attempt a French accent.

Instead of celebrating romance in an era when women, unfortunately, had few options, Thomas and Schaeffer turn it into a negotiated, antiseptic liaison between a somewhat dimwitted, 18 year-old tomboy and a rich, diminutive suitor who is close to her own age.

As giggly Gigi, perky Disney princess Vanessa Hudgens burbles and belts with “High School Musical” effervescence, while the ultra-sophisticated boulevardier Gaston Lashille (Corey Cott from “Newsies”) has become a bumbling, science nerd, nicknamed the Sugar Prince.

Gigi’s influential grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Victoria Clark), now sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” along with her gold-digging great-aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty), while Gaston’s irascible, elderly uncle Honore (Howard McGillin) acts as the suave narrator.

There’s a touch of the old magic when Victoria Clark (“Cinderella”) and Howard McGillin (“Phantom of the Opera”) warble the wistful “I Remember It Well,” followed by Clark’s heartfelt “Say a Prayer.”

While Derek McLane’s iron-lattice art nouveau set, Natasha Katz’s lush lighting and Catherine Zuber’s gowns evoke the Bois de Boulogne and Grande Palais in 1900s Paris, Joshua Bergasse’s clunky, overly acrobatic choreography is far from anything seen in the Belle Epoque.

To say that this revival of “Gigi” on Broadway is a colossal disappointment is an understatement.

“Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two” (Winter Garden Theater: April, 2015)

The Royal Shakespeare Company never disappoints! Their new production, exploring the ramifications of the Tudor dynasty, as perceived by Thomas Cromwell, is majestic and magnificent.

Based on Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, the story not only inspired Mike Poulton’s dramatic stage adaptation but also became a six-part BBC/PBS miniseries. The primary difference between the two interpretations is humor; the chronological stage condensation has it, while the meandering, overblown television version doesn’t.

Part One introduces the British court of King Henry VIII. Restless after enduring a 20-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers), which produced only a frail daughter, Princess Mary, and not the required son-and-heir, the volatile King (Nathaniel Parker) has become enamored with shrill, shrewishly clever Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard).

Seeking Royal favor, Boleyn’s family encourages the nuptials, except Anne’s jealous older sister, Mary (Olivia Darnley), the King’s ex-mistress. But that will require a Papal annulment, and Queen Katherine steadfastly refuses to retire quietly to a convent. Her stance is supported not only by her Royal Family in Spain but also her powerful nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Orchestrating the transition is the King’s advisor: ambitious, morally ambiguous Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), a lowly blacksmith’s son whose skill at emotional manipulation is unparalleled – particularly after an unsuccessful intervention by Cromwell’s mentor – wittily irreverent Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) – that cost him his position as Lord Chancellor and, ultimately, his life.

With the help of Thomas Cranmer (Giles Taylor), who would become Archbishop of Canterbury, Cromwell convinced Parliament to make the King the head of an autonomous Church of England, thus allowing him to annul his own marriage.

Part Two features much more juicy Court intrigue, culminating in the execution of Anne Boleyn – after the birth of her daughter Elizabeth and several stillborn sons – to make way for the impetuous King’s subsequent wedding to Lady Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead), a solemn ceremony attended by ghosts.

Director Jeremy Herrin adroitly juxtaposes historical accuracy and pure pageantry with revealing moments of emotional intimacy; the exuberance of his staging is relentlessly compelling.

Christopher Oram’s austere stylized set allows for flexibility, which Paule Constable and David Plater bathe in varying lights.  While Oram’s period costumes are extravagantly authentic, Nick Powell’s sound design makes some of the dialogue inaudible.

One final note: although many theatergoers view both parts on the same day, it’s exhausting to sit – alert and observant – for just under six hours. Given the choice, viewing the segments on separate days might be better.

“Skylight”

Susan Granger’s review of ‘Skylight” (Golden Theater on Broadway: April, 2015)

 

Incandescent performances by Carey Mulligan and Bill NIghy are the hallmarks of Stephen Daldry’s revival of David Hare’s 1995 drama, which delves into the consequences of class, privilege and socio-economic injustice.

On a snowy night in the mid-1990s in the Northwest London, schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Mulligan) arrives back at her small, shabby, cold-water flat, carrying piles of homework to correct, along with bags of groceries to make dinner.

Her first unexpected visitor is anguished, awkwardly immature, 18 year-old Edward Sergeant (Matthew Beard), whose mother died of cancer last year and whose relationship with his father has deteriorated in the interim. It quickly becomes apparent that Kyra had lived as a part of their household for several years.

After Edward leaves, his well-dressed, extravagantly successful restaurateur father, Tom (Nighy) suddenly appears. Refusing to remove his cashmere topcoat, he paces around the dingy premises like a caged animal, repeatedly moving a chair with his foot. Tom’s arrogant sense of entitlement is immediately obvious.

As Kyra assembles ingredients for a modest spaghetti dinner, their conversation reveals their once-clandestine May-December affair which was – after six years – discovered by Tom’s wife. Now a widower, Tom is trying to reconcile and revive their relationship, while idealistic and/or masochistic Kyra seems to have found emotional fulfillment teaching underprivileged children.

Director Stephen Daldry (“The Audience,” “Billy Elliot”) cleverly juxtaposes Nighy’s narcissistic ranting and restlessly twitchy physicality with Mulligan’s calm stillness and righteous, carefully measured introspection. The contrast of anger and affection becomes riveting theater, augmented by Beard’s perceptive poignancy.

Arriving on Broadway intact from London, the production features the intoxicating aroma of garlic, onions, chili and meat, as a pot of Bolognese sauce simmers on the stove. Bob Crowley’s dreary set evokes the squalid authenticity of living in the city’s slums, while Natasha Katz’s lighting turns early evening into frosty night and then into the hope of breaking dawn.

On a limited engagement, “Skylight” is at the Golden Theater on Broadway only through June 14.

“While We’re Young”

Susan Granger’s review of “While We’re Young” (A24 Films)

 

I suspect the extravagant praise lavished on Noah Baumbach’s films (“Frances Ha,” “Greenberg”) comes from those who can relate to the misery of snarky, neurotic New Yorkers.

This story begins pretentiously with quotations from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” Immediately, it becomes obvious that forty-somethings Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) regret that the fizz has gone out of their marriage. Most of their friends have become child-centric – and they obviously haven’t.

When he isn’t teaching filmmaking to a continuing-education class, Josh has been working on a socio-political documentary for the past 10 years, while Cornelia produces films with her famous documentarian father (Charles Grodin).

One night, after twenty-something Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) fawn over Josh’s lecture, he invites them to join him and Cornelia for dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

One encounter leads to another. As the self-involved older couple – Generation X’ers – become more and more infatuated with these insufferably energetic, Brooklyn hipsters, they feel as if they’re re-capturing their youth through the Millenials.

Not surprisingly, Jamie is an aspiring documentarian whose integrity and authenticity is immediately questionable; his obnoxious behavior reveals his relentlessly calculating penchant for exploitation. Darby? She makes almond/avocado-flavored ice cream.

Perhaps Woody Allen could have made their anxiety in parallel situations funny, but Noah Baumbach’s bantering goes off on strange tangents.  After a predictably disastrous weekend visit to a commune with a whacked-out guru, there’s even a serious detour into the ethics of documentary filmmaking.

What does work is Baumbach’s casting: the talented ensemble is far better than the superficial material they’re working with. Ben Stiller nails frantic, middle-aged frustration, while Naomi Watts is relentlessly supportive. Adam Driver epitomizes sleazy selfishness – until Amanda Seyfried eventually catches on.

In his few scenes, Charles Grodin stoically evokes renowned filmmakers like Albert Maysles and/or Frederick Wiseman; his is the one character that’s totally authentic.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “While We’re Young” is a dreary, doleful 4, an irrelevant waste of time.

“Danny Collins”

Susan Granger’s review of “Danny Collins” (Bleecker Street)

 

“Danny Collins” is an unexpected delight! Al Pacino delivers his best performance in years as an aging rocker whose life is changed when he’s given a letter sent to him – back in 1971 – by John Lennon.

Although he hasn’t written anything decent in decades, Danny still tours, captivating senior-citizen audiences with his hits from yesteryear.  Disillusioned, he hates the schlocky tunes but he’s got to support his cocaine habit and luxurious lifestyle.

Danny’s dazzling “Architectural Digest”-type home in Beverly Hills includes a glass elevator and a blonde bimbo less-than-half-his-age in residence. He’s obviously into self-destructive debauchery.

But when his best friend/manager (Christopher Plummer) presents him with this unexpected fan letter from his idol, the late John Lennon – a handwritten artifact hidden for years by a collector – Danny is forced to take stock not only of what his hedonistic life has become but what he may have missed.

Seeking redemption, Danny moves into the Hilton Woodcliff Lake in suburban New Jersey, just to be near the modest home that belongs to his estranged son, the result of a one-night stand 40 years ago.

Now a construction worker, Tom (Bobby Cannavale) was raised by his single mother who has since died of cancer – and he wants nothing to do with Danny. But his placid, pregnant wife (Jennifer Garner) and precocious, ADHD-afflicted daughter (Gabrielle Eisenberg) are intrigued by this generous stranger on their doorstep.

Meanwhile, the Hilton’s proper, pragmatic manager (Annette Bening) also figures in Danny’s plans, prompting him to begin to compose again. He even books a gig in a small lounge to try out his new songs. Of course, complications arise and Danny’s ‘comeback’ is not as simple as he’d hoped.

Supposedly inspired by a true story, it marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Fogelman (“Last Vegas,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love”). Working with decidedly mediocre material, Al Pacino elevates it above the mundane, achieving a strong, if contrived emotional connection that’s augmented by a soundtrack of John Lennon songs, including “Imagine” and “Working Class Hero.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Danny Collins” is an engaging 8. It’s captivating entertainment.

“The Longest Ride”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Longest Ride” (20th Century Fox)

 

What’s most astonishing about this predictably sudsy screen adaptation of Nicolas Sparks’ 2013 best-seller is how much Scott Eastwood looks like a younger version of his rugged father Clint – and how the camera fawns over his chiseled jawline and muscular physique.

Set in North Carolina, Scott plays Luke Collins, a former champion bull rider, who is trying to make a comeback after suffering a serious head injury. At a rodeo, he meets Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson), a studious Wake Forest University senior who is excited about her upcoming internship in New York City’s glamorous art world.

He’s an old-fashioned guy – one who calls, rather than texts, and brings her a bouquet of flowers on their first date. Despite their differences, they’re soon saddling up and riding off into the sunset.

One dark, rainy evening, Luke spies a car that’s spun off the road. Luke rescues 91 year-old Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), who was driving to Black Mountain College, near Asheville, while Sophie grabs Ira’s treasured box of letters from the passenger seat. Ira’s vivid memories – a.k.a. flashbacks – of his beloved, contemporary art-enthusiast wife Ruth inspire the young couple.

Stressing the theme that love demands compromise and sacrifice, screenwriter Craig Bolotin (“Black Rain”) and director George Tillman Jr. (“Faster”) intertwine these formulaic narratives – with Jack Huston (grandson of John) playing Young Ira and Oona Chaplin (granddaughter of Charlie, daughter of Geraldine) as vivacious Ruth, a Jewish immigrant from Austria during the 1940s.

While the rodeo sequences are exciting – with the bucking bull Rango receiving his own screen credit – the artificial juxtaposition of these two disparate romances is preposterous and the conclusion simply flabbergasting.

FYI: This is Nicholas Sparks’ 10th novel to be made into a feature film. Others include “Message in a Bottle,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Dear John,” and “The Notebook.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Longest Ride” is a syrupy 5, oozing unabashed slush and sentimentality.

“Rasheeda Speaking”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rasheeda Speaking” (The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center)

 

Set in a doctor’s office in Chicago, this edgy comedic drama revolves around rival receptionists.

It opens with Ileen Van Meter (Dianne Wiest) having a morning chat with Dr. David Williams (Darren Goldstein) concerning the return of Jaclyn Spaulding (Tonya Pinkins) after a five-day sick caused by amorphous complaints about “toxins” in the air.

Dr. Williams tells Ileen to “keep her eye” on Jaclyn, noting in a log any observations of unusual or suspicious activity. He’d obviously like to fire Jaclyn for her “poor attitude” but he needs something of substance to satisfy Human Resources.

Jaclyn appears to be a stunning, if overbearing African-American who lurks in the hallway for the big hand to reach 12 before she clocks into the workplace and is furious because she finds her plants wilting when they weren’t watered during her absence.

Perceiving Ileen’s promotion to “office manager” as a personal insult, Jaclyn rudely vents her anger on Rose Saunders (Patricia Conolly), a frail, elderly patient who appears in the office without first checking in downstairs. And Ileen is no match for her manipulative vindictiveness.

As delineated by Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson, the theme is office politics and underlying racism. It marks the directing debut of actress Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City,” “Law & Order”), who slyly handles the four-person ensemble adroitly.

Appearing at first as modestly mild and meek, Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest (“Hannah and her Sisters,” “Bullets Over Broadway”) gradually reveals neurotic Ileen’s subconscious passive-aggressive tendencies, while Tonya Pinkins (Tony-winner for “Jelly’s Last Jam”) leavens Jaclyn’s nasty hostility with humor.

Allen Moyer’s utilitarian set defines each secretary’s space, while Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design captures the familiarly functional workplace glare.

Although it’s filled with memorable moments as, obviously, the “toxins” are both symbolic and literal, the 90-minute play lacks the necessary subtlety and cohesiveness to propel it further.

“Deli Man”

Susan Granger’s review of “Deli Man” (Cohen Media Group)

 

“There are two types of people in this world,” wrote Damon Runyon, “those who love delis and those you shouldn’t associate with.”

That quote begins Erik Greenberg Anjou’s informative documentary, exploring the mouth-watering traditions and temptations of America’s Jewish delicatessens, accompanied by klezmer music.

Nostalgia reigns with David “Ziggy” Guber, a third-generation deli owner. He began working at his grandfather’s deli, the Rialto, the first deli on Broadway, when he was a kid.  Ziggy attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and trained at a three-star Michelin restaurant in London before deciding to return to his roots. Now he runs Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston, Texas.

According to writer/food historian Jane Ziegelman, delis first became popular, low-cost eateries for German Jewish immigrants from the diaspora in Eastern Europe. Mounds of pastrami, corned beef and chopped chicken livers had their own seductive appeal, along with knishes and kugel.

In 1931, there were 1,550 kosher delis – and as many or more non-kosher competitors – in the five boroughs of New York. Now there are, perhaps, 150 in all of North America.

Pastrami was an invention of the Romanians and “schmaltz” (poultry fat) is an absolute kitchen essential – whether it be Katz’s on Manhattans Lower East Side, Artie’s on the Upper West Side, Manny’s in Chicago, Caplansky’s in Toronto, Canter’s in Los Angeles and Nate ‘n Al’s in Beverly Hills.

Woody Allen set the opening scene of “Broadway Danny Rose” at the Carnegie Deli in midtown Manhattan. And the debate still rages between half-sour or full-sour pickles.

Abe Lebewohl, who owned New York’s Second Avenue Deli, claimed he was “saving the world, one sandwich at a time.” FYI: that deli has now moved to 33rd Street between Lexington and Third.

Yiddish was often spoken, as surly waitresses once served as surrogate mothers, counseling those who were far from home. Just listen to the testimonials by deli devotees like Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Larry King and attorney Alan Dershowtiz.

Years ago, deli staples were tasty dishes like goulash, chicken fricassee, potted meatballs and gribenes (fried schmaltz). Now, what people want are matzo-ball soup and pastrami-on-rye.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Deli Man” is a delectable 6, an artery-clogging delight.