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“Rio 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Rio 2” (20th Century-Fox Animation/Blue Sky Studios)

 

While this animated sequel stuffs in twice as many characters and twice the amount of comedic subplots, it redeems itself with progressive percussive pop music.

Those rare Blue Spix Macaws, domesticated Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and free-spirited Jewel (Anne Hathaway) are raising their three chicks: wise Bia (Amandla Stenberg), adventurous Tiago (Pierce Gagnon) and adolescent Carla (Rachel Crow). But when Blu’s Minnesota buddies, traveling eco-activists Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) and Linda (Leslie Mann), find a flock of Blue Spix Macaw as they’re trying to halt logging in the Amazon rainforest, they announce that the endangered species is not extinct. So Jewel decides that it’s time to introduce her iPod-loving kids to their natural wild habitat in South America. Nerdy, neurotic Blu, who wears a fanny pack with a GPS for navigation, is understandably reluctant about making the 2,000-mile journey. Nevertheless, they descend on Rio de Janeiro, along with the party-hearty toucan Rafael (George Lopez) and the rapper duo of cardinal Pedro (will.i.am) and canary Nico (Jamie Foxx). Before long, they find Jewel’s lost-lost family, including her stern father Eduardo (Andy Garcia), overbearing Aunt Mimi (Rita Moreno) and preening childhood playmate Roberto (Bruno Mars), whose charm ignites citified Blu’s jealousy.  Meanwhile, in the waterfront Carnavale, the villainous, Shakespeare-quoting cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) is plotting revenge with Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth), a poisonous pink-and-purple tree frog who adores Nigel but cannot be touched, and mute Charlie, a tap-dancing anteater with an extra-long, elastic tongue.

Chaotically scripted by Don Rhymer, Carlos Kotkin, Jenny Bicks and Toni Brenner from a story by Brazilian-born director Carlos Saldanha, it’s filled with vividly colorful merriment and jubilant musical numbers, supervised by Sergio Mendes with composer John Powell, singer-songwriter Carlinhos Brown and original compositions by Janelle Monae and Wondaland. But the effect is uneven. Jemaine Clement’s rap-infused rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” seems discordant, while Kristin Chenoweth soars with the torch song “Poison Love.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rio 2”is an exotic 6, a frantic, family-friendly adventure that’s filled with familiar feathered friends.

“Draft Day”

Susan Granger’s review of “Draft Day” (Summit Entertainment)

 

Each May, National Football League general managers wheel-and-deal, trying to sign the best college players. So, when Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) of the Cleveland Browns gets a call from the Seattle Seahawks, offering to trade their star quarterback, he must decide whether he’s willing to sacrifice his first, and perhaps only, chance to build his own dream team, for what looks like a ‘sure thing.’

Sonny’s in a bind. His fabled coach father died the week before, and his spunky girl-friend Ali (Jennifer Garner), the team’s salary-cap manager, just informed him that she’s pregnant.  Sonny really wants linebacker Vonte Mack (Chadwick Boseman), who will serve the team in the long run.  Besides, the Browns already have a strong quarterback (Tom Welling), now fully recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him much of last season. On the other hand, the head coach (Denis Leary) desperately wants running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), whose father (NFL vet Terry Crews) was also a Brown. And the team’s owner (Frank Langella), tells him his job’s on the line unless he picks a winner.

Written by Rejiv Joseph and Scott Rothman and directed by Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” “Stripes,” “Kindergarten Cop”), this sports dramedy is, basically, about having the courage of your convictions – with split-screens effectively heightening the tension. The pressure takes place behind closed doors in the executive offices, as opposed to the playing field, while statisticians observe that sometimes first-round picks turns out to be duds, while a sixth-rounder, like New England’s Tom Brady, excels.

Kevin Costner (“Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams”) is solid, as are Garner and Leary, with Ellen Burstyn as embattled Sonny’s outspoken mother and Sean Combs as a slick agent. Cameos include real-life Browns, past and present, including legendary Jim Brown, plus sports figures Chris Berman, Mel Kiper, Jon Gruden, Ray Lewis, Deion Sanders and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Draft Day” scores a shrewdly suspenseful 6. Not as good as “Jerry Maguire” or “Moneyball,” but football fanatics will undoubtedly enjoy it.

“The Bridges of Madison County:

Susan Granger’s review of “The Bridges of Madison County” (Gerald Schoenfeld Theater ‘2014)

 

Translating the iconic 1995 love story in which Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood’s simmering passion ignited the screen into a Broadway musical is a challenge.  Yet composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown does it superbly, while the exquisite voices of Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale soar gloriously.

Set in 1965, melancholy Francesca Johnson (Kelli O’Hara) nostalgically recounts her journey as a young Italian war bride transplanted from Naples to the vast cornfields of Iowa with the opening number “To Build a Home.”  Married to stolid Bud (Hunter Foster) for 18 years, they now have two teenagers, Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena). When Bud and the bickering kids take off for a few days at the Indiana State Fair, Francesca stays home. So when National Geographic photographer, Texas-born Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale), stops by to ask directions to a particular covered bridge, she offers him iced tea and a home-cooked meal.  Acutely aware of their emotional connection, one intimacy inevitably leads to another as they trill the ballad “Falling Into You.”

With a lilting Italian accent, Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific,” “Pajama Game”) gracefully embodies Francesca’s unspoken sadness and earthy, repressed sensuality, while Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”) exudes soulful conviction. Their second-act duet, “One Second and a Million Miles” is a show-stopper. As Francesca’s nosy but kind-hearted neighbors, Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin add much needed humor, while Whitney Bashor, as Robert’s ex-wife, sings the folk ballad “Another Life.”

Based on Robert James Waller’s sudsy, 1992 best-seller about loneliness, love and longing in the American Midwest, it’s adapted by Marsha Norman (“’night Mother,” “The Color Purple”), who dilutes the essential romantic aspect by devoting far too much time to trivia with Bud and the farm kids.  And director Bartlett Sher, perhaps inspired by Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” clutters the stage with far too many distracting, obviously disapproving, rustic bystanders who keep busily moving props on Michael Yeargan’s stylized set, enhanced by Donald Holder’s dramatic lighting.

“Dom Hemingway”

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

 

In this British black comedy/crime drama, Jude law plays the hot-tempered, self-destructive titular character, a notorious London safecracker who gets into trouble as soon as he’s released from 12 years in prison. Because he refused to rat on his Russian boss, he’s expecting a generous reward. After relishing three days of utter debauchery with his meditative mate Dickie (Richard E. Grant), they take the train to the south of France, outside of St. Tropez, to visit the posh, countryside villa that belongs to Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), who gives him three-quarters of a million pounds in cash. Predictably, disaster strikes – in the form of a nighttime Rolls Royce car accident and an exotic femme fatale named Pasolina (Romanian model Madalina Diana Ghenea) – launching this crime-caper, interwoven with Dom’s attempts to establish a relationship with his estranged daughter Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), a struggling singer with a young, mute son.

Self-consciously written and directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador,” “The Linguini Incident”) as a redemption saga, it’s certainly not as compelling as other dramas in this gangland genre, like “Sexy Beast” or “”Two Smoking Barrels.” On the other hand, it gives usually handsome Jude Law (“Sherlock Holmes,” “Alfie,” “Cold Mountain”) an opportunity to gain weight, grease and comb back his hair, sport a double-mutton chop beard and spew crude, vulgar profanities in a Cockney accent.  Reportedly, he piled on the extra poundage by drinking 10 Coca-Colas a day. Law obviously enjoys impersonating this abrasively loquacious, lowlife lout, even though no one else seems to care very much about his relentless rants.

It will be a challenge for fans of “Game of Thrones” to recognize Emilia Clarke, who looks nothing like Daenerys Targaryen, the blonde dragon princess she portrays on that popular TV series.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dom Hemingway” is a dissolute, insufferable 5. Wait for the DVD.

“Cirque du Soliel: Amaluna”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Sabotage”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Noah”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“The Lunchbox”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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