Categories

“Force Majeure”

Susan Granger’s review of “Force Majeure”  (Magnolia Pictures)

 

The ‘picture perfect’ Swedish family is introduced in the opening scene, as Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two beautiful children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren), pose for a photographer on the first day of their skiing vacation at Les Arcs in the magnificent French Alps.

The following day, when they’re enjoying a festive lunch at an outdoor café, a terrifying cascade of snow seems to be headed directly towards them. “It’s a controlled avalanche,” explains Tomas. “It doesn’t look controlled to me,” retorts Ebba, as they’re suddenly blanketed in an eerie mist. During that brief interim, panicked Tomas grabs his iPhone and flees, while Ebba tries to protect the frightened children.

Sheepishly returning shortly afterwards, Tomas realizes that their family dynamic has changed. And it’s not just because of what he’s done. It’s also because he lies about leaving, a denial which infuriates Ebba even more, as they recount their contrasting versions of what happened to Norwegian friends (Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius) at their Alpine hotel.

Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund, it’s a provocative psychodrama, revolving around a man’s survival instinct and subsequent guilt. “The male superhero is the most reproduced character on film,” says Ostlund, explaining why he created Tomas’ shameful torment.

This deliberately paced, marital-discord dilemma is set against visually stunning skiers gracefully gliding down the meticulously manufactured slopes, punctuated by squeaking sounds emanating from the creaking ski lifts that transport them back up the mountain – gloriously photographed by Fredrik Wenzel.

Selected as Sweden’s official entry for the foreign language Academy Award, “Force Majeure” is an emotionally eviscerating 8, exploring gender stereotypes and assumptions.

 

“Birdman”

Susan Granger’s review of “Birdman” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/Regency Enterprises)

 

In an astonishing technical achievement, director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (“Babel”) films this satirical backstage comedic drama in what looks like one long, continuous take, transcending time and space, soaring off into hallucinatory flights of fantasy, while remaining grounded in the present.

Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a fading, egocentric movie star, renown as the black-winged comic book hero Birdman. Now he’s determined to prove himself on Broadway by directing and starring in a self-financed adaptation of Raymond Carter’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Facing mounting adversity during previews, Riggan must not only cope with his just-out-of-drug rehab daughter (Emma Stone) and embittered ex-wife (Amy Ryan) but also his harried lawyer/manager (Zach Galifianakis), actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), insecure leading lady (Naomi Watts), and her supercilious actor/boyfriend (Edward Norton). What makes Riggan delusionary is the voice of Birdman, as his alter-ego, firmly lodged in his brain, enabling his mystical telekinetic powers.

Essential to this thought-provoking character study – co-written by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Do – are Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid cinematography, and Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione’s seamless editing, propelled by Antonio Sanchez’s percussion-based score.  It’s restlessly paced – if inexplicable.

This is the peak performance of Michael Keaton’s career, ironically skewering fellow actors who have succumbed to the narcissistic lure of our culture’s celebrity-obsession, donning superhero costumes and cashing big paychecks.  If you recall, Keaton played the title role in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) and its sequel “Batman Returns” (1992).

Plus, there’s a strong supporting cast, including Lindsay Duncan as a venomous yet influential theater critic who vows to sabotage Riggan.

There are celebrity in-jokes and sly digs at the subversive role of social media in today’s world, embodied in a small card on the mirror in Riggan’s dressing room: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Birdman” soars to an intense, immersive 10. It’s an exhilarating visual experience for those who enjoy highly imaginative cinema.

“Stonehearst Asylum”

Susan Granger’s review of “Stonehearst Asylum” (Millennium Entertainment)

 

In 1899, a recently graduated doctor, Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), accepted an assistant position at the remotely situated Stonehearst Asylum, where 200 mentally disturbed members of Victorian England’s distinguished families, including a relative of the Queen, are incarcerated. Welcomed on Christmas Eve by its dour superintendent Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), he is informed that the institution’s methods are progressive- in accordance with the non-traditional belief that if they treat psychotic patients with compassion, as if they were sane, they will eventually rise to that expectation.

Dr. Newgate is immediately bewitched by elegant pianist Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a trembling hysteric who was committed after allegedly assaulting her husband when he forced his abhorrent sexual preferences upon her.  She warns him that things are not as they seem – and then he begins to have suspicions about enigmatic Dr. Lamb’s menacing gatekeeper/bodyguard (David Thewlis), a depraved professor (Brendan Gleeson), the previous administrator (Michael Caine), his head nurse (Sinead Cusack) and what’s really happening in the subterranean dungeon beneath the Gothic façade of this medieval madhouse.

Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” it’s melodramatically scripted as a psychological thriller by Joseph Gangemi and heavy-handedly directed by Brad Anderson (“The Machinist,” “Session 9”), enlivened only by the illustrious cast and Tom Yatsko’s gloomy, evocatively  atmospheric cinematography.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Stonehearst Asylum” is a ham-fisted, forgettable 4, serving as a horrific reminder about how far mental health treatment has progressed.

“The Big Apple Circus: Metamorphosis”

Susan Granger’s review of THE BIG APPLE CIRCUS: METAMORPHOSIS – Lincoln Center (2014/15)

 

The Big Apple Circus has never been more magical than this all-new show, “Metamorphosis” – which means “possibility.” It is the power that turns the everyday into the extraordinary, like when the lowly caterpillar wondrously becomes a butterfly.

Butterflies are everywhere in this family-friendly production. There’s a big one on the jacket of ringmaster John Kennedy Kane, another on cavorting Francesco the Clown, and a swarm of illusionary butterflies projected on the tent walls, as the Circus Band plays high above the signature single ring.

First, Mongolian contortionist Odbayasakj Dorjoo gracefully folds herself into a tiny Lucite cube.  Then Jenny Vidbel frolics with playful farm animals, followed by an astonishing aerial act as Giovani Anastasini & Irene Espana spin with a whirling spaceship and their sons Guliano and Fabio are a wonderful diabolo juggling duo. And that’s just the first act.

After intermission, Jenny Vidbel returns with a Living Carousel (the exotic alpacas, loping camels and scuttling porcupine elicited the most murmurs) and clowns indulge in Musical Moments. Founded by graduates of the Moscow Circus School, the amazing Aniskin Troupe has added a trampoline act to their repertoire. Also from Russia, quick-change artists Olga and Vladimir Smirnov entertain. But the biggest thrills come once again from the fearless Aniskins with their skillful trapeze act. The entire show runs 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission – and every seat is a good seat.

Now in its 37th year, the not-for-profit Big Apple Circus provides entertainment year ‘round to thousands who are not able to get to the show. There’s Clown Care, as professional clown doctors bring laughter and joy to the bedsides of 250,000 acutely and chronically ill children in 19 leading pediatric hospitals nationally. Circus of the Senses is a unique performance for children who are vision or hearing-impaired. Circus After School gives at-risk children the opportunity to develop teamwork and commitment skills by learning and performing circus acts. And Circus For All annually distributes 50,000 free and discounted tickets to public schools and organizations serving economically disadvantaged children.

Catch the Big Apple Circus: Metamorphosis at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park through Jan. 11, 2015. Learn more at www.bigapplecircus.org.

 

“Interstellar”

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

 

Visionary filmmaker Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Memento,” “Inception”) has created a speculative, mind-bending sci-fi adventure through the celestial space-time continuum.

Sometime in the future, Earth is dying.  As the atmosphere grows richer in nitrogen and loses oxygen, the world is suffocating. Famine is rampant, yet science is so derided that rewritten history books claim the Apollo missions of the 20th century were a hoax to force the Soviets into a bankrupting space race.

Aeronautical engineer-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is secretly recruited by his former physics professor (Michael Caine) to pilot a NASA spacecraft through a mysterious deep space tunnel, called a wormhole, near Saturn to find a suitable planet for Earthlings to colonize. But widower Coop’s heart belongs with his family, particularly his precocious 10 year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy).  Coop knows that space travel means that Murph could be his age when and if he ever returns.

Nevertheless, Coop and his crew (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) with a robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) embark on what becomes a spectacular thrill ride, encompassing incomparable beauty and inconceivable terror. As years pass, now-grown Murph (Jessica Chastain) realizes that, in order to see her father again, she must solve an essential equation involving time, gravity and space. It’s a captivating premise, even if movie-goers understand very little of the techno-babble.

Propelling not only the plot but also empathy for the father/daughter plight, Matthew McConaughey embodies the strong, tender hero, supported by a cast that includes John Lithgow, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Ellen Burstyn.

Obviously inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and consultations with eminent theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, writer/director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan have conceived a metaphysical conclusion that’s comparably bewildering.

Inventively designed by Nathan Crowley and magnificently photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema, the film’s emotional effectiveness is heightened by Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Interstellar” is an audaciously ambitious, awesome 8, reflecting Nolan’s belief that humans are destined to explore the universe.

“The Theory of Everything”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Theory of Everything” (Focus Features)

 

Eddie Redmayne has a lock on a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his eloquent portrayal of renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.  In this poignant, revelatory biopic, Redmayne realizes a challenging physical, mental and emotional transformation, comparable to Daniel Day-Lewis’ in “My Left Foot.”

Hawking’s story begins in 1963 at Cambridge University, where he was a raffishly disheveled scholar who liked to build model airplanes and boats, shoot off fireworks and play board games. That’s where he fell in love with fellow student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Then, at age 21, he was diagnosed with ALS – a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease. Frustrated yet fiercely independent, he continued his study of cosmology, encouraged by his mentor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis).  In retrospect, Hawking has said that his body’s deteriorating motor/neuron condition liberated his mind. Hawking’s fame increased with the publication of “A Brief History of Time,” detailing his groundbreaking theories, and he embarked on a series of lecture tours. Although Stephen and Jane had three children, they drifted apart emotionally. Jane fell in love with choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), while Stephen subsequently married and divorced one of his nurses, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake).

Adapting Jane Hawking’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh reveal the complicated, sensitive man behind the genius IQ – and they were allowed to use Hawking’s own speech synthesizer to replicate his iconic voice. It’s astonishing how Eddie Redmayne (“Les Miserables”) is able to communicate Hawking’s emotions by mirroring the expressive, often mischievous movements of his eyes and eyebrows.

Whatever happens in the Oscar race, Eddie Redmayne has already received his highest compliment. After watching a London screening, now 72 year-old Stephen Hawking called the film “broadly true,” saying there were certain points where he thought he was watching himself.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Theory of Everything” is an extraordinary, inspirational 10. “There should be no boundary to human endeavor,” Hawking concludes. “However bad life may seem, where there is life, there is hope.”

“Foxcatcher”

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

Based on true events, Bennett Miller’s chilling crime drama reveals the ultimately tragic relationship between John Eleuthere du Pont, a delusional, eccentric multi-millionaire, and two freestyle wrestling champions.

Brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz are preparing for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics when they catch the attention of lonely, socially inept, 57 year-old John du Pont (Steve Carell), a wrestling aficionado who lives on Foxcatcher Farm, a 416-acre horse-racing compound on Philadelphia’s Main Line that’s owned by his elderly, imperious mother (Vanessa Redgrave).

Impressed by the du Pont wealth and dynastic stature as the largest chemical company in the world, taciturn 27 year-old Mark becomes John’s protégé, moving into a sumptuous guest cottage and submitting to the strict discipline and loneliness that’s enforced by his benefactor/surrogate father, who is a passionate patriot and devoted philatelist, dabbling in ornithology.  But, eventually, dour, inarticulate Mark realizes that the counsel and training he needs can only come from his devoted older brother Dave, who is – at first – reluctant to uproot his wife (Sienna Miller) and two young children from Colorado to the Valley Forge area. Eventually, however, not only Dave but the entire U.S. Olympic wrestling team makes Foxcatcher Farm their state-of-the-art headquarters. Until one, ill-fated night…

Scripted by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, built on the meticulously detailed research of director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”), the multi-layered, performance-driven concept becomes subtly compelling because of how Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum embody the subtext of their characters. Wearing a large prosthetic nose, Carell is almost unrecognizable as creepy, obsessed John du Pont, who is relentlessly desperate to impress his disapproving mother. His nasal voice is halting and hollow, reflecting his contemptuous paranoia and underlying emotional insecurity. In contrast, amiable Ruffalo is in full command of the wrestler’s mentality, which is matched by Tatum’s physicality and perpetually simmering resentment.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Foxcatcher” is a sorrowful, sordid 7, oozing bizarre homoeroticism and brutal violence.

Sting’s “The Last Ship” on Broadway

Susan Granger’s review of “The Last Ship” (Neil Simon Theatre – 2014/15 season)

 

Can Sting’s wistfully haunting score save this dreary, mournful musical? That’s the question.

Inspired by Sting’s childhood memories in northeast England, it’s set in Newcastle’s close-knit, seafaring Wallsend neighborhood, where young Gideon Fletcher (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) refuses to step into the well-worn boots of his father (Jamie Jackson) and become an apprentice shipbuilder.  Instead, he bids farewell to his forlorn girl-friend Meg (Dawn Cantwell) and heads off to find his fortune as a merchant seaman. The prodigal son doesn’t return until his father’s funeral – 15 years later – only to discover that the local shipyard is closing and that Meg (Rachel Tucker) not only bore him a son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet),  but has also – in the meantime – found an ardent, dependable suitor, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), who wants to settle down with her. Encouraged by the terminally-ill parish priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), who dips into the church’s building fund to finance the ambitious project, grown Gideon (Michael Esper) joins the gruffly righteous foreman, Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), and his proud workers in their defiant determination to build one last ship and launch it on the River Tyne.

Although multi-talented Sting has written excellent music and melancholy lyrics about loss and letting go, the show’s bloated narrative is bogged down by John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s tediously ponderous book, filled with cardboard characters, uttering tiresome, clichéd dialogue. Director Joe Mantello’s testosterone-propelled staging is lively and polished but there’s far too much loud foot-stomping that Stephen Hoggett passes for rugged choreography, while the unemployed workers wallow at the local pub. Production designer David Zinn’s modestly symbolic sets, consisting of metallic scaffolding, are appropriate as are his costumes.

Bottom Line: Buy the concert version.

“Book of Life”

Susan Granger’s review of “Book of Life” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Animation veteran Jorge R. Guiterrez makes his feature-length writing/directing debut with this colorful, cross-cultural story of love, death and duty.

When a group of mischievous children are touring a museum, their guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) tells them a legend about Mexico’s fabled Day of the Dead, which occurs on November 2. That’s when two skeletal spirits -La Muerta (voiced by Kate del Castillo), the gentle Queen of the Land of the Remembered and her grim husband, Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman), the manipulative ruler of the Land of the Forgotten – made a wager.  In the fantastical town of San Angel, if the strutting, self-absorbed warrior Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) can win the hand of the lovely Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana), Xibalba can usurp La Muerta’s kingdom, but if his sensitive friend Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), who was born into a family of matadors but yearns to be a musician, claims her heart, the wager is won by La Muerta, meaning Xibalba must stop meddling in the lives of humans.

Guided by producer Guillermo del Toro and working with co-writer Doug Langdale, Jorge R. Guiterrez has created an overly-ambitious adventure about the afterlife. While the visuals dazzle, the familiar, formulaic story disappoints, particularly since it’s crowded with far too many disparate characters, including the Candle Maker (voiced by Ice Cube) in the Cave of Souls, the metallic monster Chakal (voiced by Dan Navarro), and caustic Grandma (voiced by Grey Griffin).

Inspired by Mexican folk art, the computer-generated, mythological characters resemble handcrafted wooden dolls or carved marionettes, often moving to traditional mariachi songs which composers Gustavo Santaolalla and Paul Williams, along with music supervisor John Houlihan combine with modern, pop-culture numbers like Radiohead’s “Creep,” Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” and Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?,” among others.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Book of Life” is a gloriously vibrant, splashy 6. It’s ghoulishly fanciful fun.

“John Wick”

Susan Granger’s review of “John Wick” (Summit Entertainment)

 

Keanu Reeves plays the taciturn titular character, a grieving widower whose sanity tips over the edge when Daisy, his beloved beagle puppy – a posthumous gift from his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) – is slaughtered and his classic 1969 black Mustang is stolen by a young thug, Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen).

Wick is a legendary mob hit man who retired to New Jersey, and now he’s determined to wreak homicidal vengeance. As it turns out, Iosef is the son of Russian crime lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), who tells the lad, “It’s not what you did that angers me so, it’s who you did it to.”

Then, in paternal protective mode, Viggo puts a $2 million price on Wick’s head.  So the carnage continues – as Wick is hunted by various assassins (Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, Adrienne Palicki) who hang out in the Continental Club, a shadowy safe house in Manhattan, where tradition dictates that no ‘business’ may be conducted.

After delineating an initial series of improbable coincidences, pulpy screenwriter Derek Kolstad concentrates on the intense action sequences, as do director Chad Stahelski and producer David Leitch. Previously, Stahelski served as Keanu Reeves’ “Matrix” trilogy and “Speed’ stunt double, while Leitch doubled for Brad Pitt in “Fight Club” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”  As veteran martial arts experts, stunt coordinators and second-unit directors, they’ve worked together for more than 20 years, forming their own 87Eleven Action Design with its group headquarters in an industrial complex near Los Angeles International Airport. What they aim for here is staging acrobatic, cartoonish violence, creating a dapper, daredevil killer who can efficiently blast bullet-riddled mayhem and annihilate dozens without wrinkling his black, three-piece suit.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “John Wick” is a relentlessly violent, fierce 5, revolving around revenge, retribution and redemption.