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“Into the Storm”

Susan Granger’s review of “Into the Storm” (Warner Bros.)

 

Far too timely in the season of tornados, this action-packed, natural disaster thriller features professional storm-chasers, thrill-seeking amateurs and some teenagers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Set in the region of the Midwest region known as Tornado Alley, it begins on Graduation morning at Silverton High School. As vice-principal, Gary Fuller (Richard Armitage) is in charge of making sure everything runs on time – without a hitch. Problem is: the weather report worries him. A widower/single father, he’s shepherding two sons, Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress), through their difficult teenage years.  Although it’s Donnie’s responsibility to film the ceremony, he sneaks off to hang out with Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam-Carey), helping her with a video project concerning environmental awareness, leaving his younger brother in charge of the camera. Suddenly, a tremendous storm approaches, bringing with it a professional storm-chasing team, headed by documentary filmmaker Pete Moore (Matt Walsh) with Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies) as his meteorologist and three camera operators (Lee Whittaker, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter). Plus, there are the adrenaline junkies, Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep), whose crazy, daredevil antics are supposed to temporarily ease the tension with a little humor.

Populated by generic, one-dimensional characters who speak in clichés, it’s written by John Swetnam and directed by Steven Quale. What makes viewing it memorable are the intense, amazingly realistic visual effects, which depict not only the wind and rain but also the monstrous impact of several cyclones striking the same place at the same time, leaving destruction in their wake. There’s also a provocative issue revolving around how reality television has made stars of several real-life storm chasers, prompting scores of people to take irresponsible risks in order to capture the video or image that will make them rich and famous.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Into the Storm” is a suspenseful 6, a truly terrifying thrill ride.

“Get On Up”

Susan Granger’s review of “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)

 

Tate Taylor’s unconventional James Brown biopic chronicles the chaotic life of the Godfather of Soul – but not in any chronological order.  It begins with the incident that led to Brown’s arrest following a 1988 high-speed police chase and then cuts to reveal sequences from his childhood in a shack in the backwoods of South Carolina, where he was abused by his father (Lennie James) and deserted by his mother (Viola Davis), leaving him in the care of a paternal aunt (Octavia Spencer), a brothel madam. During these jumbled flashbacks, Brown breaks the so-called fourth wall, addressing the audience to express his innermost feelings.

Not surprisingly, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) grows into a life of petty crime. Arrested in Toccoa, Georgia, for stealing a man’s three-piece suit from a car, he sings at a gospel concert for penitentiary inmates. His innate talent so impresses Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the frontman for the Famous Flames, that he persuades his mother to allow Brown to move in with them when he’s on parole. Joining up with promoter Ben Bart (Dan Akyroyd), the rest is musical history.

Awkwardly scripted by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth from a story by Steven Baigelman, it’s briskly directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), whose biggest coup was casting charismatic Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in “42.” Boseman is brilliant, energetically re-creating Brown’s strut, swagger, and rubber-legged shimmy, including his spectacular splits. The filmmakers’ problem lies with focus and making the contradictions in Brown’s personal life palatable, including roughing up DeeDee (Jill Scott), one of his wives. Known as the hardest working man in show business, James Brown was totally self-made, influencing a generation of hip-hop R&B singers-dancers like Michael Jackson, Prince, Usher and Chris Brown. But his ego was colossal. Few could address him by his first name, his temper tantrums were legendary, and his drug-addled paranoia eventually did him in.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Get On Up” is a swingin’ but scrambled 6. Lacking cohesion, it never quite finds its rhythm.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” (DreamWorks Pictures/Disney)

 

Gastronomes will be salivating as Lasse Hallstrom revisits “Chocolat” (2000) territory.  Impressively introduced by executive producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, the story revolves around a displaced family from India that opens Maison Mumbai, 100-feet directly across the road from Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin-starred, classical French restaurant.

When the rickety car carrying the emigrant Kaddam family breaks down near the idyllic village of Saint-Anton-Noble-Val in France’s rural Midi-Pyrenees region, Papa (Om Puri) decides that he’s found the perfect place to open a boisterous, Bollywood-esque eatery – much to the dismay of widowed Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a stern, snobbish perfectionist whose celebrated country inn specializes in elegant haute cuisine, catering to the aristocracy, including the President of France. Tempers flare and knives are brandished in a territorial culture clash, as the rustic rivalry between the two establishments heats up. More complications erupt when a competitive, love/hate relationship develops between earnest Hassan Kaddam (Manish Dayal), a self-taught, extraordinarily talented cook, and Mme. Mallory’s slyly ambitious sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who teaches Hassan how to find wild mushrooms on the riverbank. While tradition-bound Mme. Mallory covets another Michelin star, Hassan Kaddam, toting his family’s exotic spice box, must grapple with the emotional price one pays for international success, including coping with Parisians’ desire for nouveau metro molecular fare.

Based on Richard C. Morais’s 2010 best-seller, adapted for the screen by Steven Knight (“Locke”), it’s directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who serves up so many mouth-watering scenes – like a surprisingly seasoned omelet, steaming boeuf bourguignon and perfectly plated pigeon with truffles – that the lush photography of Linus Sandgren deserves special mention, along with A.R. Rahman’s lively score.  Masters of their craft, Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) and Bollywood star Om Puri are irresistible as sparring partners, even though their emotional trajectory, admittedly, seems foreordained, as does the romance between Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a deliciously poignant, highly improbable 7, a spicy fairy tale for foodies.

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Guardians of the Galaxy” (Marvel Studios/Disney)

 

Marvel expands its cinematic clout to encompass another colorful franchise, encompassing a rag-tag team of intergalactic adventurers.  Headed by Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star Lord (Chris Pratt), the quintet includes the green-skinned warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), vengeance-seeking Drax the Destroyer (WWW champ Dave Bautista) and two endearing CG characters: clever, cybernetically-enhanced, gun-slinging Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Groot, a humanoid, self-regenerating tree whose one line of dialogue (“I am Groot”) is uttered repeatedly – but with different intonations – by Vin Diesel.

It begins in 1988, when grief-stricken, nine year-old Peter, whose cancer-ravaged mother has just died, is abducted from Earth and zapped into the cosmos. Now thirtysomething, he still carries his Walkman and earphones, bopping to a mixtape of funky ‘70s songs, like “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Come and Get Your Love,” and “I’m Not in Love.”  Piloting his own spacecraft, Peter is an intrepid mercenary, scavenging once-populated-but-now-deserted planets, on the payroll of a blue-skinned Ravager, Yondu (Michael Rooker). Dispatched after a mysterious silver Orb, Peter discovers it’s also coveted by ruthless Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a villainous warlord who wants to trade it in exchange for the power to destroy Xandar, home to the Nova Corps, the space militia that’s been at war with Ronan’s race, the evil Kree, headed by all-powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin), who appeared during a brief post-credit scene in “The Avengers” (2012).

Humorously adapted from the Marvel comic book series by Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn (“Slither”), it’s an origin story, filled with irreverent one-liners and running gags, propelled by wise-cracking Chris Platt in his first leading role after years of playing supporting parts in “Her,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Moneyball” and TV’s “Parks and Recreation.” Completing the ensemble are Benicio Del Toro as The Collector, Djimon Hounsou as Ronan’s lieutenant, Glenn Close as Nova’s Defense Minister and John C. Reilly as her Corpsman.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is an energetic 8. In 3D, it’s goofy, space-faring fun.

“Hercules”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hercules” (Paramount Pictures/M.G.M.)

 

Sword-and-sandal is a genre unto itself. Often set in classic Greco-Roman or Biblical history, it generally features a simplistic plot with a muscleman hero. Its appeal is primitive. The men are bare-chested, the women are curvaceous, and the villains are scheming royals/aristocrats. There’s lots of physical combat, although the action can border on silliness and camp. A series of 19 movies about Hercules were made in Italy in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, following Steve Reeves’ highly successful “Hercules” (1957). The demigod has been played by Gordon Scott, Kirk Morris, Mickey Hargitay (Jayne Mansfield’s husband), Mark Forest, Alan Steel, Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus (a.k.a. Rock Stevens), Mike Lane – and now Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

In this revisionist version, Hercules is a restless mercenary whose devoted nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) serves as his mythmaker, weaving stories to enhance his image and reputation as the son of Zeus, who impregnated the mortal Alcmene, rousing the understandable ire of his goddess wife Hera. Hercules’ crew also includes the droll soothsayer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), childhood friend Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the Amazonian archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal who resembles a sturdy Nicole Kidman), and shell-shocked, feral mute, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie). Responding to a plea from lovely Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt), they journey to Thrace, where they’re greeted by treacherous King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes), who wants them to train his troops to fight an army of demons.

Based on Steve Moore’s comic books, adapted by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, and directed by Brett Ratner (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), it slogs along, punctuated by impressive, computer-enhanced battle scenes and a few memorable moments. Like when Hercules, wearing the vanquished Nemean lion’s head as a helmet, picks up a horse-and-rider, hurling them to the ground. If you’re willing to spring for the 3D surcharge, the military formations are impressive as spears come whizzing by you.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hercules” is a frenetic, fitfully fun 4, a popcorn picture that becomes a tongue-in-cheek tussle.

“Lucy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lucy” (Universal Pictures)

 

Starting with the provocative premise – that human beings use only 10% of their brain capacity – this is strictly science fiction. Filmmaker Luc Besson knew that this percentage figure was inaccurate, yet plunged ahead with his inventive adventure, revolving around a naïve young American named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who gets tricked into delivering a mysterious metal briefcase to a Taiwanese crime boss, Mr. Jang (South Korean actor Choi Min Sik), and forced to become one of his drug mules. When she’s repeatedly kicked in the gut, there’s leakage from the bag of blue crystals, a narcotic known as CPH4, that’s been surgically inserted in her abdomen, and a metamorphosis occurs: Lucy becomes superhuman.  Determined not only to wreak primal revenge on her captors but also to acquire more and more knowledge, employing her increasing array of powers and skills – she contacts Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), a neuroscientist who is lecturing about cerebral capacity at a university in Paris.

Cleverly utilizing computer-generated imagery, while suspending all sensible logic thru fragmented, episodic story-telling, French writer/director Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita,” “Leon: The Professional,” “Taken,” “The Transporter”) has created a fast-paced, blood-splattered, eerie escapade, shot on a mere $40 million budget. Obviously inspired by Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Neo in “The Matrix” franchise, Besson even takes the name Lucy from the fossilized skeleton of man’s earliest ancestor, Australopitchecus afarensis, which was discovered in 1974.

In addition to playing butt-kicking Black Widow in Marvel’s “Avenger” movies, Scarlett Johansson vocalized the seductive computer in Spike Jonze’s “Her” and embodied the elusive, enigmatic, enticing alien in Jonathan Glazer’s surreal “Under the Skin.” So, as cleverly awesome Lucy, she can believably handle telekinesis, intercepting electro-magnetic signals and communicating via satellites. Look for Johansson to emerge as Angelina Jolie’s successor as the preeminent female action star.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lucy” is a weird yet strangely intriguing 7, posing fascinating philosophical questions, like: Does time truly exist? Why are we really here? And is our essence immortal?

“And So It Goes”

Susan Granger’s review of “And So It Goes” (Clarius Entertainment)

 

While Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton get star billing, Connecticut’s scenic shoreline quickly becomes the center of attention in Rob Reiner’s new romantic comedy – at least for local residents. Filmed in part at Lake Compounce in Bristol, as well as in Bridgeport, Greenwich, Southport and Black Rock (which is thanked in the credits), it revolves around an about-to-retire real estate salesman who avidly reads the Fairfield Citizen newspaper.

While grumpy, misanthropic widower Oren Little (Douglas) is desperately trying to unload his palatial, overpriced mansion in Fairfield and retire to Vermont, he finds himself saddled with caring for a 10 year-old granddaughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins), he never knew he had because his estranged, ex-junkie son, Luke (Scott Shepherd), has been sent to prison for nine months.  Help comes from Leah (Keaton), the wannabe lounge-singer who lives next-door. She bursts into tears whenever she sings love ballads because they remind her of her late husband. And you can easily predict where the plot goes from there.

Doing his best to create charm from Oren’s smug, unrepentantly obnoxious behavior, Michael Douglas basically reprises his “Las Vegas” (2013) performance, while Diane Keaton revives her customary neuroticism from “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003). Working from a bland, formulaic script by Mark Andrus (co-writer of “As Good As It Gets”), veteran director Rob Reiner (“The Bucket List,” “When Harry Met Sally”) elicits strong performances from his ensemble, particularly young Sterling Jerins who underplays effectively.

Obviously drawing inspiration from coping with Cameron, his own, real-life jailed son, Douglas’s personal pain is palpable – and, as he ages, he looks more and more like his father Kirk. Ms. Keaton’s quavery crooning is pleasant, as Reiner accompanies her on the piano when they audition for restaurateur Frankie Valli. As Oren’s outspoken co-worker, Frances Sternhagen steals every scene she’s in – it’s too bad there are so few.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “And So It Goes” is an engaging, yet forgettable 5. Aimed at a senior-citizen audience, it should enjoy a long life as a DVD.

“Hairspray”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hairspray” (The Summer Theater of New Canaan)

 

If you’re looking for summer musical theater that’s chock full of top-notch talent that – in this particular case – is better than Broadway – at a third of the price, get tickets to see “Hairspray” at the Summer Theater of New Canaan.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, it’s the story of how a pudgy, dance-crazed teenager, Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Spigelman), stuns her oversized, overprotective mom (Greg Loudon – in drag) and sympathetic dad (Nick Reynolds) by winning a coveted spot on an afternoon TV dance party, stealing the affections of hunky heartthrob Link Larkin (Nick Pankuch) and becoming a fearless, unstoppable force for racial integration, much to the chagrin of scheming Velma Von Tussle (Jodi  Stevens), the ex-beauty queen who produces “The Corny Collins Show,” a local version of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

Director Allegra Libonati and choreographer Doug Shankman gently bury many of the subversive undertones that dominated John Waters’ original concept, preferring to concentrate on the trials and tribulations of being ‘different’ in this bouncy, toe-tapping,  rock ‘n’ roll musical with music by Marc Shaiman who co-wrote the lyrics with Scott Wittman and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan.  Julia Noulin-Merat’s set design and Daniel B. Chapman’s lighting enhance the effectiveness of Orli Nativ’s colorfully nostalgic costumes, Bobbie Clifton Zlotnik’s outrageous beehive wigs and David Hancock Turner’s superb on-stage orchestra.

Shimmying Rebecca Spigelman sparkles, while Greg Loudon camps it up with diminutive Nick Reynolds, and Jodi Stevens is marvelously malevolent.  Sharon Malane is effervescent as Tracy’s BFF, who teams up with dazzling dancer De’Sean Dooley and is befriended by show-stopping A’lisa Miles.

I must confess this was my first visit to The Summer Theater of New Canaan, located in an airy, all-weather tent adjacent to New Canaan High School in Waveny Park – but it won’t be my last. If you think you have to travel to Manhattan – or Goodspeed – for high quality musical productions with Equity casts, you haven’t discovered this ‘gem,’ right here in Fairfield County.

“You Can’t Stop The Beat” but, unfortunately, “Hairspray” only plays in New Canaan until August, 3, so get your tickets now.  Call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org

 

 

“Boyhood”

Susan Granger’s review of “Boyhood” (IFC Films)

 

Director Richard Linklater filmed this extraordinary coming-of-age saga every October over 12 consecutive years, chronicling the life of six year-old Ellar Coltrane, until he reaches 18.

Given the fictional screen-name of Mason (Coltrane) is first seen in East Texas, playing with neighborhood kids and squabbling with his older sister, Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei). At the end of this segment, they move to Houston which means a new home, new elementary school, new friends. Mason’s Dad (Ethan Hawke) and Mom (Patricia Arquette) are divorced; Mason’s always hoping that they’ll get back together.  But that’s not to be. Lovers come and go in his parents’ lives. Problem is: whenever his Mom finds a new man, she marries him – and one (Marco Perella) turns out to be an abusive alcoholic. By the time Mason turns 15, Coltrane has become less stiff on-camera, wryly humorous and far more self-assured. Going off to UT-Austin, he’s matured before our eyes.

Richard Linklater epitomizes the independent American filmmaker. From “Dazed and Confused” and “School of Rock” to his Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “After Sunset,” “Before Midnight”), he continues to choose off-beat topics. Shooting in 35 mm and presenting the story in a linear structure, rather that utilizing flashbacks, Linklater dilutes the melodrama but emphasizes the essential veracity.

In this kind of episodic experiment, Linklater joins Michael Apted, who has documented 14 British youngsters, revisiting them every seven years for his “Up” series. What’s unusual is Linklater’s substantial ownership. Traditionally, the filmmaker gets points (a.k.a. a percentage of the profits) but sacrifices his copyright once a financier, like IFC Films, becomes the distributor. However, in this case, Linklater chose to relinquish his usual low-seven-figure upfront fee in order to preserve a stake.  He’s not unique, however.  George Lucas became a billionaire by retaining “Star Wars” merchandising, licensing and sequel rights, while Mel Gibson’s self-financed “The Passion of the Christ” reaped hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nearly three hours in length, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Boyhood” is a naturalistic 9, a bittersweet alternative to studio productions.

“Magic in the Moonlight”

Susan Granger’s review of “Magic in the Moonlight” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Confession: I can’t remember seeing a movie from writer/director Woody Allen that I didn’t like. Some are better than others, like “Blue Jasmine” (2013), but they’re all intriguing in their own way.  This entrancing, new romantic comedy falls kind of in the middle.

Set in 1928 on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France, the plot revolves around the efforts of Europe’s most acclaimed magician to debunk a beautiful, young American from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who purports to be a spiritual medium.  Responding to a plea from his longtime friend/fellow conjurer Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), acerbic Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) arrives at the Riviera villa of gullible Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), who is eager to reconnect with her late, Pittsburgh industrialist husband via séances conducted by another houseguest, clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who’s traveling with her protective mother (Marcia Gay Harden). In the meantime, Grace’s sappy son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), is determined to woo and win Sophie’s heart, while Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) in Provence provides wise counsel.

Obviously inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” Woody Allen envisions cynically debonair Stanley Crawford as misanthropic Henry Higgins, whose dyspeptic demeanor is so arrogant and brash that he alienates everyone with whom he converses. Indeed, as an astute illusionist, Stanley’s so determined to slyly unmask Sophie, proving she’s a fraud that he doesn’t realize he’s succumbed to her “magical thinking.”  In this role, Colin Firth seems to be channeling the late, great Rex Harrison, a similarity that Allen subtly acknowledges, evoking memories of “My Fair Lady.” As for Emma Stone, she plays sweet Sophie’s hand so close to the vest that one wonders if, perhaps, she could be the real deal.

Gloriously photographed by Darius Khondji with opulent period costumes by Sonia Grande, burnished sets by production designer Anne Seibel, and an endearing American songbook soundtrack, it’s a joy to behold.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Magic in the Moonlight” is a whimsical, ephemeral 8, airily appealing to those who loved “Midnight in Paris” (2011).