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“Things We Do For Love”

Susan Granger’s review of “Things We Do For Love” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Known as the most produced living playwright, Alan Aykbourn has written more than 77 plays, one for every year of his life. Set in a three-story house in London, this dark comedy about relationships has three out of five ingredients necessary for a successful play: the script is witty, the acting is superb, and the energetic direction is perceptive.

The bittersweet story revolves around Barbara (Geneva Carr), an outspoken, yet lonely and uptight professional assistant who’s devoted to her very-married boss. She’s just rented the upstairs flat to a needy former school chum, Nikki (Sarah Manton), who moves in with her new fiancé Hamish (Matthew Greer) while their house is being remodeled. The tenant downstairs is a garrulous widower, Gilbert (Michael Mastro), a postman who moonlights as Barbara’s handyman. Passion, lust and secrecy abound as the foursome frolics and fights among themselves.

Geneva Carr is exquisite as spiky Barbara, particularly when she’s snidely dismissive of Hamish, who is both Scottish and a vegetarian. Sarah Manton embodies affection-craving Nikki, a perennial victim. Matthew Greer scores as affable Hamish, while Michael Mastro adds a creepily unctuous fervor to the conflict.  Juggling all the emotional discourse, veteran director John Tillinger sets a fast-pace, adroitly aided by fight choreographer Robert Westley.  And Laurie Churba Kohn’s costuming is spot-on.

The problem with this production lies with James Noone’s scenic design and Paul Miller’s elusive lighting. According to Aykbourne’s notes, the set should resemble a layer cake. The main focus is compulsive Barbara’s immaculately tidy living-room, where most of the action takes place. Upstairs, there’s another flat, but the audience can only glimpse the actors’ lower limbs. Downstairs, there’s a basement in which audience should be able to see only the ceiling and the actor’s head. But – in this Westport production – it doesn’t work. There really isn’t a good seat in the house: meaning, you cannot see all three floors from anywhere. As a result of that discordant element, audience members are deprived of emotional involvement. In addition, at two-and-a-half hours with one intermission, it’s far too long.

“Things We Do For Love” is at the Westport Country Playhouse until Sunday, Sept. 7. For tickets and information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

NOTE: REACTION FROM MARK LAMOS, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE WESTPORT COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE

“There is a houseful of great seats at the Playhouse for our current production. Everything that happens in the basement apartment is completely clear to everyone in the audience, whether they can see the sliver of a set or not. This is due to the extraordinary clarity of the acting and directing. Not being able to see the apartment has nothing to do with the success of the production.”

“When the Game Stands Tall”

Susan Granger’s review of “When the Game Stands Tall” (TriStar Pictures/Sony)

Based on the true story of a Catholic high school in suburban Concord, California, and its football team’s longest winning streak, it introduces the De La Salle Spartans, whose 151-game winning streak (1992-2003) remains a national gridiron record.

Then, in late 2003, after the Spartans win yet another state championship, Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) suffers a heart attack and their star player, T.K. Kelly (Stephan James), is killed in a random shooting, just as he’s preparing to move to Eugene, Oregon, to play college football. Not long afterwards, the Spartans lose the first two games of the 2004 season. Deducing that the team has become cocky, far more focused on achieving personal glory than teamwork, newly recovered Coach Lad (who also teaches religious studies) and his longtime assistant coach Terry Eddison (Michael Chiklis) decide to impart lessons about discipline and good sportsmanship.

Reciting from Matthew 23:13: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled. And whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

Part of Sony Pictures push toward faith-based productions under its Affirm Films label, it’s a formulaic sports drama, adapted into a sermonizing parable by Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon from Neil Hayes’s 2003 non-fiction book and directed at a laconic pace by Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter”). Unfortunately, none of the characters are memorable individuals and the stereotypical team members are virtually indistinguishable, except for the running back Chris Ryan, played by Alexander Ludwig, a former child star from “Race to Witch Mountain” (2009) who plays Tribute Cato in “The Hunger Games.”  Even the football scrimmage sequences are bland, barring the climactic match. Having established his reputation as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Jim Caviezel is no stranger to stoic, secular righteousness. And as his dutiful wife, Laura Dern’s considerable talent is totally wasted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “When the Game Stands Tall” is an insipid, fumbling 4, even though it’s filled with earnest intentions.

“Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

Susan Granger’s review of “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (Dimension Films)

 

Back in 2005, director Robert Rodriguez brought Frank Miller’s ferociously sexy comic series to the big screen, looking like an ultra-stylized, neo-noir cartoon. And the sequel’s just more of the same. It consists of four interwoven stories, set in the titular Sin City.

In the first, Marv (Mickey Rourke) wreaks revenge against some rich, frat boys who are killing homeless people. In the second, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cocky young gambler, picks up Marcy (Julia Garner) as a ‘good luck’ charm before he brashly bests ruthless Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) in a poker game. In the third segment, Dwight (Josh Brolin), a surly private detective, succumbs to the seductive charms of duplicitous Ava (Eva Green), who claims she needs his help. And the final episode revolves around Nancy (Jessica Alba), a hard-drinking stripper who has been haunted by the death of her love, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), focusing her rage on Senator Roark and enlisting the aid of ever-willing Marv.

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, it’s a series of grim, mega-violent vignettes, strung together with loosely connective tissue and self-consciously punctuated with cheesy, hard-boiled dialogue. As the titular ‘dame,’ Eva Green is uninhibitedly exhibitionistic, brazenly flaunting her to-die-for figure in several gratuitous nude scenes. The supporting cast includes Stacy Keach, Christopher Lloyd, Jeremy Piven, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Rosario Dawson, even Lady Gaga. But what’s most memorable are the monochromatic cinematography and unusual production values, including make-up, costumes and striking special effects.

Prime Focus World did the CGI. Founded in 1997 in Mumbai, Prime Focus gave India its first high-end scanning, recording and finishing system. When the company over-expanded to Vancouver, London and Los Angeles, its fortunes declined, so it merged with London’s Double Negative. Whether PFW survives may depend on how well this picture does, since it bartered for a share of the profits.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is a ham-fisted 4, visually stunning but emotionally lifeless.

“The Expendables 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Expendables 3” (Lionsgate/Millennium Films)

 

This latest installment in Sylvester Stallone’s action franchise is filled with beefy heroes, a really bad guy and an endless barrage of bullets as the murder and mayhem continues.

The opening sequence features a helicopter-versus-train battle in which Barney Ross (Stallone) and what’s left of his crew help a fellow mercenary, a knife expert known as Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), escape from incarceration.  Barney needs Doc to help him intercept an arms deal in Somalia. But their mission fizzles when they discover the bigwig brokering the deal is Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former Expendable whom Barney thought he’d killed when he went rogue.  Determined to take down sociopathic Stonebanks, Barney dismisses his former crew (Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Jason Statham. Jet Li) and – with the help of Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), hires younger, more agile and tech-savvy newbies (Kellan Lutz, Antonio Banderas, Glen Powell, mixed-martial-arts champ Ronda Rousey, boxer Victor Ortiz). Ferried by competitor Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and joined by Agent Drummer (Harrison Ford), who wants Stonebanks to stand trial for war crimes at The Hague, they’re off to do the CIA’s dirty work once again. Only, things don’t go exactly as planned.

Co-screenwriter Stallone make sure every action icon gets a token scene, while director Patrick Hughes propels the formulaic soldiers-of-fortune story. If you’re curious why Bruce Willis is a ‘no show’ after appearing in the first two movies, apparently, he wanted $4 million for four days’ work; Stallone offered him $3 million, so Willis walked. But Wesley Snipes is back, self-referentially alluding to his real-life issue with tax evasion.  Stallone uses his usual three expressions: sorrowful, strained and sneering, so it’s up to loquacious Antonio Banderas to enliven the tedium.

FYI: Pirates were able to steal a print, most likely from an independent special-effects finishing firm, releasing it on the Internet in July so 2.2 million fans were able to download it free.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Expendables” is a tired 3, filled with punishing chase scenes and repetitive gunfire.

 

“If I Stay”

Susan Granger’s review of “If I Stay” (Warner Bros.)

 

It’s curious that the current crop of teenage tragedies adapted from Young Adult fiction, like “The Fault in Our Stars” and now “If I Stay,” so adeptly incorporates the essential question that sustains all cinematic suspense: Will the protagonist survive?  And in this case, she must make the choice herself.

In Portland, Oregon, Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a teenage rebel.  A classical music nerd, she’s passionate about playing the cello, idolizes Yo-Yo Ma and Beethoven and has her heart set on attending Julliard. That stuns her free-spirited parents (Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard), former rock ‘n’ rollers, and her younger brother (Jakob Davies).  But her super cool boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley) understands, even though he fronts a rocker band.  Then, one day, when a snowstorm blankets the landscape, there’s a horrific automobile accident which decimates her family. Seriously injured, hovering between life and death, Mia must choose between returning to pick up the pieces of her shattered existence or simply letting it all go, slipping into the radiant light that beckons her.

“Isn’t it amazing how life is one thing and then, in an instant, it becomes something else””

Scripted by Shauna Cross (“Whip It”) from Gayle Forman’s best-selling 2009 novel, it’s directed by documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler (“The September Issue”), making his motion picture debut.  In Cutler’s adaptation, Mia’s in a state of limbo; her dilemma evolves through a series of flashbacks that reveal not only her deep, abiding love for her family but also her anguished conflict between pursuing her musical ambition and her desire be with the man she adores.

While Chloe Grace Moretz (“Let Me In,” “Carrie”) wrestles with raw, soul-searching, chemistry spikes with hunky Jamie Blackley. But it’s Stacy Keach, as Mia’s grandfather, who delivers the most memorable performance, delivering a subtly haunting hospital-bedside speech.

FYI: Alisa Weilerstein did the cello playing – and her overcoming-adversity story is also fascinating (http://www.opus3artists.com/artists/alisa-weilerstein)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “If I Stay” is a poignant, sensitive 7 – a tension-filled tearjerker which should satisfy its intended audience.

“Let’s Be Cops”

Susan Granger’s review of “Let’s Be Cops” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Oh, let’s not! In this colossal waste of time and talent, thirtysomething nitwits Ryan (Jake Johnson), a former college quarterback who never made it to the NFL, and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.), a low-level video-game designer, dress up in what look like genuine police uniforms for a Purdue University reunion that they mistakenly believe is a costume party. As they walk back home afterwards, they suddenly discover that they’re suddenly given the respect and power they’ve missed in ordinary life in Los Angeles. So when Ryan finds a used police car for sale on eBay, they take their impersonations one step further – by purchasing bullet-proof vests and other paraphernalia, learning law enforcement lingo and going out on patrol in their disguises.

While Justin enjoys the attention of Josie (Nina Dobrev), a beautiful waitress who yearns to be a Hollywood makeup artist, their charade misfires when they encounter a gang of Eastern European mobsters, headed by Mossi (James D’Arcy), a veritable psychopath, who shows intense interest in the little restaurant where Josie works. Accompanied by Segars(Rob Riggle), a veteran cop who, at first, thinks they’re authentic, they find themselves entangled in a criminal investigation that’s ‘way above their pay-grade.

Lamely scripted by Nicholas Thomas and director Luke Greenfield (“The Animal”), this tedious wannabe action comedy misfires from the get-go, as gag-after-gag falls flat. And it doesn’t help much that Keegan-Michael Key, Natasha Leggro, and Andy Garcia turn up in generic supporting roles. Not surprisingly, the discarded scenes that accompany the concluding credits are funnier than anything that preceded them. Let’s put it this way: since Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson co-star on “New Girl,” let’s hope they don’t give up their television jobs.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Let’s Be Cops” is a rotten 2. You have the right to refrain.

“Calvary”

Susan Granger’s review of “Calvary” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

Opening with a quote from St. Augustine: “Despair not, one of the thieves was spared. Presume not, one of the thieves was not.”  Set in a small village on the wind-swept coastline of Ireland, this subtly provocative thriller begins when a good-hearted cleric, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), is threatened in the confessional booth.  Sexually abused – years ago – by a pedophile priest who has since died, one of Father James’s bitter parishioners is determined to wreak revenge by killing him in exactly seven days: “I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Over the next week, weary Father James wrestles not only with the concept of his own mortality but also the declining influence of the Catholic Church in contemporary society, as he confronts various members of the rural  community, gruffly making amends and meeting with disparate suspects, all of whom have been unrepentantly sinning for many years.

There’s the sinister, perversely atheistic doctor (Aiden Gillen) and the rich, despairing businessman (Dylan Moran), along with the vulgar butcher (Chris O’Dowd), whose promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke) is blatantly having an affair with an African immigrant auto mechanic (Isaach de Bankole).  He counsels a jailed serial rapist/killer (Domhall Gleeson, Brendan’s real-life son) and is scorned by a policeman (Gary Lydon) and male prostitute (Owen Sharpe). It seems that Father James’s only benign acquaintances are an elderly American author (M. Emmett Walsh) and a philosophical Frenchwoman (Marie Josee Croze) whose husband just died. Finally, Father James, a widower before he became a priest, tries to counsel his confused, suicidal daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who perceives his becoming ordained in the Church as abandonment.

An Oscar nomination seems inevitable for Brendan Gleeson, who propels the elliptical, ticking-clock psychodrama, conceived by Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard”) and magnificently photographed by Larry Smith. Filming took place over a period of 29 days in the weather-beaten fishing village of Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Calvary” is an intense, compassionate 8, revolving around the complicated concept of forgiveness.

“What If”

Susan Granger’s review of “What If” (CBS Films)

 

What if you had charismatic Daniel Radcliffe as your leading man? Wouldn’t you strive for the most interesting, original vehicle possible to separate this now 25 year-old man from his Harry Potter past?  That obviously didn’t concern Toronto-based director Michael Dowse (“Goon”), who dives into a cloying, predictably formulaic rom-com, based on Nora Ephron’s observation, “Men and woman can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way,” which Billy Crystal verbalized in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989).

Med school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has become a hermit, living in the attic of his sister’s home, ever since he caught his former girlfriend cheating on him. Cautiously venturing out one night, he meets a flirtatious animator, Chantry (Zoe Kazan), at a party given by his blowhard best-friend Allan (Adam Driver).  Composing cleverly cynical refrigerator-magnet poetry, they hit it off immediately, but she’s already living with Ben (Rafe Spall), a high-powered diplomat with the United Nations. So they become friends, sort of, since Wallace has feelings for her that are definitely not platonic. Not surprisingly, when globe-trotting Ben departs for Dublin for six months, Chantry and Wallace become inseparable, kind of.

Adapted by screenwriter Elan Mastai from T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s stage-play “Toothpaste and Cigars,” it’s coyly sweet and snarky, never establishing a consistent tone – with hip, yet trifling banter passing for dialogue and Chantry’s whimsical cartoons quickly becoming an annoyance.

Making an interesting transition to adult roles, Daniel Radcliffe seems to be channeling Hugh Grant in his bashful-yet-brash British mannerisms. With big blue eyes and chipmunk cheeks, Zoe Kazan works her theatrical heritage; she’s the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord and granddaughter of director Elia Kazan. Adam Driver is familiar from HBO’s “Girls,” while Rafe Spall is the son of British character actor Timothy Spall. In supporting roles, Megan Park plays Chantry’s promiscuous sister and Mackenzie Davis is Allan’s hot-to-trot girl-friend.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, What If” is a trifling, tedious 3. It’s not even worth placing on your Netflix queue.

“The Giver”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Giver” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Published back in 1993, Lois Lowry’s young-adult novel was a touching, dystopian fantasy, centered on a 12 year-old boy.  If it had been filmed back then, it would have preceded similar stories like “Ender’s Game,” “Elysium,” “Divergent,” and the “Hunger Games” franchise.  But now, it’s just one more bland, teen-centric story, set in the distant future, depicting a post-apocalyptic society of “true equality.”

The Community, as it’s called, is supposed to be Utopia. Classless, climate-controlled, and conflict-free, it’s an isolated world that’s free of poverty, famine and other forms of suffering.  Choice is unknown; achieving sameness is everyone’s goal. Tranquility reigns, enforced by “precision of language,” meaning people are constantly apologizing and saying, “I accept your apology.”

Upon ritually graduating from childhood and receiving his lifetime job assignment, Jonas (Brendan Thwaits) is chosen by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) to be the next Receiver, meaning he’s to be taught by the titular Giver ( bearded Jeff Bridges), a tormented soul who holds the collective cultural memories.  As Jonas learns about the pain of love and war, and the ecstasy of art and music, he becomes determined to ‘free’ not only his family (Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes), including a continually crying infant, but also one special girl, Fiona (Odeya Rush).

In this disappointing screen adaption by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, directed by Philip Noyce (“Patriot Games,” Salt”), the protagonist has been transformed from a child into a young adult, which dilutes the impact of the ethical/moral conflicts and loss-of-innocence theme but allows for a sweetly plausible romance and some vaguely religious overtones. Working with production designer Ed Verr5eaux and cinematographer Ross Emery, Noyce creates this eerie, not-so brave new world monochromatically, allowing Jonas to slowly notice subtle bits of color, eventually including vivid greens, blues and reds. Except for Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, the actors are nondescript, delivering strangely stilted, unmemorable performances.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Giver” is a platitudinous, all-too-familiar 5, unlikely to satisfy avid fans of Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal-winning book.

“Step Up: All In”

Susan Granger’s review of “Step Up: All In” (Lionsgate)

 

The fifth flick in this franchise fades a bit, perhaps because there’s a tediously melodramatic storyline and not enough dancing. And no Channing Tatum. The leading man chore falls to self-centered Sean (Ryan Guzman), who decides to stay in Los Angeles when his group, the Mobsters, returns to Miami.

“There’s a magic that happens when you dance,” he says. “The world is in synch and, for one perfect moment, you feel alive.” Taking work as a janitor in a dance studio owned by the immigrant grandparents of Moose (Adam Sevani), he spots a VH1 promo for a TV reality-show dance contest called The Vortex, hosted by a preening, Lady Gaga-like diva, Alexxa Brava  (Poland-born Izabella Miko). Since the prize is a coveted three-year contract at Caesar’s Palace, Sean and Moose, who has landed a job at an engineering lab, set about recruiting a new crew composed of Moose’s old pal Andie (Brianna Evigan), along with Hair (Chris Scott), Vladd (Chad Smith), Monster (Luis Rosado) and Jenny Kido (Mari Koda),  dancers featured in past “Step Up” movies.  This disparate assemblage decides to call themselves LMNTRIX, pronounced “elementrix.”  When they arrive in Sin City, they find themselves on a collision course with both The Mobsters and The Grim Knights, headed by their perennial rival, Jasper Tarik (Stephen “Stevo” Jones).

Laboriously scripted by John Swetnam (“Into the Storm”) and energetically directed by former competitive ballroom dancer-turned-music video helmer Trish Sie, it’s formulaically predictable and utterly bland, except for the musical numbers. Working with three additional choreographers, Sie abandons the flash mobs in the street, which were featured in previous films, in order to concentrate on ensemble dance-offs that become fantastic extravaganzas, set to cutting-edge club music. Starting with the opening number, one routine is more flashy, daring and colorful than the next – culminating in the gigantic, Cirque du Soliel-like, nine-minute finale, complete with pyrotechnics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Step Up: All In” is a faltering 4, except for the dance sequences.