“Inside Out”

Susan Granger’s review of “Inside Out” (Pixar/Disney)

 

After a two-year hiatus, Pixar Animation (“The Incredibles,” “Wall-E,” “Toy Story”) is back with an incredibly creative, complex idea: how our various emotions affect our behavior.

The concept revolves around five instinctive emotions that propel us: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Bill Hader) and Fear (Lewis Black). Headquartered in a vast Control Center in our mind, these emotions transfer experiences to vast memory banks, which is why – for example – we can remember pop jingles and silly songs.

When happy, playful 11 year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is forced to move from her idyllic home in Minnesota to an old Victorian house in San Francisco, she has trouble adjusting. The three stabilities in her life – family, friendship and hockey – are shaken to the core.

While ebullient Joy dominated Riley’s consciousness for many years, keeping wistful Sadness on the sidelines, now both Joy and Sadness are sucked from the Control Center and plunged into the countless, kaleidoscopic channels of her brain. That happens when Riley realizes she no longer has friends she can rely on and she loses confidence in her ability to play hockey.

Director Pete Docter (“Up”) explores “inside” Riley’s mind, which reacts to the “outside” world. Sounds confusing? It isn’t. Particularly at the dinner table when Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan) react to petulant, pre-teen Riley’s moody rebellion, which is a reflection of her insecurity.

Pixar animators visualize the inner workings of the brain and simplify them – with honesty, subtle humor and compassion to spare. Each experience is depicted as a marble, which rolls through a series of ramps and chutes, landing on a Train-of-Thought, perhaps bypassing Long Term Memory, leading to Abstract Thinking, even Goofball Island.

There’s even a dazzling, surreal dream sequence with Riley’s imaginary childhood friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), evoking memories of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.” The result is colorful, captivating and funny, illustrating a universal experience that engages both kids and adults.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Inside Out” is a terrific, triumphant 10, emerging as one of the most ambitious, exciting animated features ever made. And watch the closing credits.

10

“And a Nightingale Sang”

Susan Granger’s review of “And a Nightingale Sang” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Told from the compassionately wistful perspective of Helen Stott (Brenda Meaney), this nostalgic melodrama by C.P. Taylor recalls a mundane slice-of-life in Newcastle, England, from 1939-1943, during World War II.

Helen’s close-knit, yet outspoken family consists of her genial, piano-playing father (Sean Cullen), peripatetic yet observant grandfather (Richard Kline), devotedly Catholic mother (Deirdre Madigan), and younger sister (Jenny Leona), who’s initially indecisive about marrying the young soldier (John Skelley) who – in turn –  introduces Helen to his taciturn comrade (Matthew Greer) who becomes her lover.

Their rambling conversations overlap, as each is only concerned with his or her personal travails – yet a pervasive sense of human fallibility serves as a universal connective thread.

Along with the perceptive performances, particularly Brenda Meaney’s, what distinguishes this memory piece is its richly detailed authenticity, including musical selections, ration books, air raid shelters, spam sandwiches, wartime romances, a unwanted pregnancy and a rising interest in Communism, presaging the post-war influence of the working-class.

Even the use of the plural pronoun “us,” referring to oneself, was common in northern England during that period of time. As bit of background information, this C.P. Taylor play was written in 1977 – and commissioned by Newcastle upon Tyne’s Live Theatre Company as a chronicle of that time and place.

Kristen Robinson has created a simple, suggestive set that transforms itself in the observer’s eye from a modest, two-room house into an outdoor courtyard – under the deft direction of David Kennedy.

Michael Krass’ period costumes are obviously vintage, and Matthew Richards’ lighting is evocative, particularly when the family cowers in terror as German planes bomb the area.

“And a Nightingale Sang” will be performed at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 27. For more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at (203) 227-4177.

“Gemma Bovery”

Susan Granger’s review of “Gemma Bovery” (Music Box Films)

 

French writer/director Anne Fontaine envisions Gustav Flaubert’s classic 19th century novel “Madame Bovary” for contemporary times.

The story revolves around Martin Joubert (Fabrice Lucchini), an unhappily married baker who fled from Paris to seek tranquility in the Normandy countryside. An avid reader, his favorite book is “Madame Bovary,” which was written in this same provincial village.

When a young British couple buys a rustic, dilapidated house nearby, he immediately befriends artistic Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and her furniture-restorer husband Charles (Jason Flemyng), who share the same surname – only they spell it “Bovery.”

In an erotic sequence reminiscent of “Chocolat,” Martin offers to teach Gemma how to bake bread and, literally, salivates as he watchers her knead her first baguette in his steamy kitchen.

In Martin’s fanciful imagination, there’s a distinct parallel between ill-fated Emma Bovary and flirtatious Gemma. Like her fictional counterpart, bored housewife Gemma impulsively embarks on an adulterous affair with an aristocratic law student, Herve de Bressigny (Niels Schneider), who is ostensibly studying in his family’s chateau.

Working with co-scriptwriter Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel,” “Adore”) has adapted the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, whose update of “Far From the Madding Crowd” became Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drew,” also starring Gemma Arterton. It’s a clever conceit.

In a New York Times interview, Ms. Fontaine explained, “In French, we have the word ‘bovarysme,’ which means never being satisfied, always hoping for something that never arrives. We all have that, and it’s what makes Emma so universal.”

Comic actor Fabrice Lucchini is superb, reflecting middle-aged Martin’s obsessive, long-suppressed sexuality, while lovely Gemma Arterton embodies his lustful fantasies. That’s epitomized most blatantly when a bee stings Gemma’s back and she insists that besotted Martin unbutton her dress and lasciviously suck out the venom.

In French with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gemma Bovary” is a sensual, satirical 6, making your mouth water – for fresh, flaky croissants.

06

Jurassic World

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

 

This fourth installment in the “Jurassic Park” franchise, based on Michael Crichton’s best-seller, is back on track as a terrifying creature feature.

22 years after the tragic events of the original “Jurassic Park,” Isla Nublar, that island off the coast of Costa Rica, has become Jurassic World, a dinosaur theme park with safari-like excursions, rides on baby triceratopses, and a petting zoo.

CEO Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) is a visionary whose scientists, led by Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong), are preparing to introduce their newest attraction: a fiercely ferocious, genetic hybrid called Indominus Rex.

That doesn’t sit well with wise-cracking wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a “dinosaur whisperer”/behavior specialist, who has been training a quartet of velociraptors to obey his commands.

But constant improvements are necessary, stresses Operations Manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose visiting nephews (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins) have just arrived.

“The park needs a new attraction every few years to reinvigorate the public’s interest, kind of like the space program,” Claire explains.

Problem is: Indominus Rex escapes from her paddock, destroying everyone and everything in her path.

And that’s just what a scheming military contractor (Vincent D’Onofrio) has been waiting for. He’s eager to see if trained velociraptors can trap the renegade reptile and, in the future, be weaponized to augment troops in battle.

Under the obvious supervision of Steven Spielberg, working with writer/producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and co-writer Derek Connolly, director Colin Trevorrow (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) stacks the emotional stakes while propelling the imaginative action-adventure – with nods not only to the 1993 original but also to “Indiana Jones,” “Jaws,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Birds.”

With “Guardians of the Galaxy” under his belt, Chris Pratt is the hero-du-jour, while Bryce Dallas Howard is the formulaic damsel-in-distress, forced to run for her life in “ridiculous” high heels.

But the real stars are the marauding digital dinosaurs, swooping pterodactyls, and Indominus’s adaptive camouflaging ability.

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jurassic World” is an exciting 8, a reinvigorated thrill ride.

08

“United Passions”

Susan Granger’s review of “United Passions” (Leuviah-Films/Screen Media)

 

Talk about terrible timing! This historical drama, depicting the evolution of FIFA from its beginnings in the early 20th century to the present, coincides the arrest of 14 of its top executives on bribery, fraud, money laundering and racketeering charges and the resignation of its newly re-elected president, Sepp Blatter.

For those who don’t follow soccer, FIFA stands for the Federation Internationale de Football Association.  And this film – written by Jean-Paul Delfino and director Frederic Auburtin (“Paris Je T’aime”) – is a self-financed, sanitizing, propaganda piece that reportedly cost approx. $30 million.

Utilizing numerous title cards, it chronicles the rise of the World Cup through the tenure of three FIFA presidents, who are sympathetically portrayed by well-known, presumably highly-paid actors.

Involved in the founding of FIFA in 1904, “visionary” Frenchman Jules Rimet, (Gerard Depardieu) presided over the first FIFA World Cup, which was held in Uruguay in 1930. Apparently, Uruguay was chosen because of the popularity of the game in South America and because it offered to pay all travel costs. The next World Cup was held in Italy under the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Despite criticism, Rimet was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1956.

Brazilian/Portuguese Joao Havelange (Sam Neill) led the organization from 1974 to 1998. The sale of television rights increased greatly under Havelange’s stewardship, along with exclusive marketing agreements with Coca-Cola and Adidas. But he was plagued with accusations of having accepted monetary bribes, along with gifts of diamonds, Delft blue porcelain, paintings, art books, bicycles and other sports equipment.

In 1998, Zurich-based businessman Sepp Blatter (Tim Roth) succeeded Havelange, who noted that this new president is “apparently good at finding money.”  In 2012, Havelange reportedly announced that commercial bribery was not a crime in Switzerland. Like his predecessor, Blatter worked to increase the inclusion of African and Asian athletes, and it was whispered that Blatter had cut an “unofficial” agreement to ensure that Russia and Qatar would host the 2018 and 2011 World Cups, respectively.

Although it’s obviously unintentional, there’s a particularly ludicrous moment when self-righteous Blatter warns against lucrative deals, noting: “The slightest breach of ethics will be severely punished.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “United Passions” is a deceptive, disgraceful 1. It’s deplorable.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

Susan Granger’s review of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (Fox Searchlight/Indian Paintbrush)

 

Granted, the title might be a bit of a turn-off, along with the fact that it’s about cancer. But let me assure you that it’s one of the best indies of the year.

Pittsburgh high school senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is one of those painfully shy, self-conscious kids who says he would rather remain invisible and eat lunch alone – or watching Werner Herzog movies in the office of his heavily tattooed history teacher (Jon Bernthal) – than be part of any cafeteria clique.

Yet, like everyone else, Greg yearns for acceptance. His best-friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), an African-American classmate whom he refers to as his “co-worker.” Aspiring filmmakers, Greg and Earl make short parodies of classic and foreign films, dubbing them “Senior Citizen Kane,” “A Sockwork Orange,” “Breath Less,” “Pooping Tom,” and “2:48 p.m. Cowboy.”

Greg lives in a middle-class suburb with his eccentric professor father (Nick Offerman) and overbearing mother (Connie Britton), who forces him to befriend a boozy neighbor’s (Molly Shannon) daughter, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with leukemia.

When Rachel brusquely retorts that she doesn’t want his pity, Greg bluntly tells her, “I’m not here because I pity you. I’m here because my mom is making me.”

As they talk in her bedroom, Rachel recognizes Greg’s insecurity, and a strong bond begins to grow between them. Watching Greg and Earl’s silly spoofs brightens Rachel’s day, particularly when her treatment gets tougher to take.

Cleverly adapted by Jesse Andrews from his 2013 young adult novel and sensitively directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), the quirky, often comedic narrative – with its own chapter titles – adroitly captures the exquisitely awkward agony of teen angst, bearing an affinity with “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Much of the credit for its effectiveness also goes to Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung for constant visual surprises, along with several animated sequences, and Brian Eno’s affecting score.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a wryly inventive 9. Put this insightful, contemporary coming-of-age movie on your “must see” list.

“Spy”

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

 

In Paul Feig’s globe-trotting parody of espionage action-thrillers, Melissa McCarthy has finally found a film that showcases her versatility and comedic prowess.

After the sexy, satirical James Bond-style opening sequence, there’s seemingly timid Susan Cooper (McCarthy), a CIA agent, working as an analyst in Langley, Virginia, using high-tech surveillance to serve as the eyes and ears of an urbane operative, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She’s obviously in love with him, and he uses her devotion for his personal advantage.

When a terrorist poses a nuclear bomb threat and the other field agents’ identities are compromised, Susan’s boss, Deputy Director Elaine Crocker (Alison Janney), dispatches her overseas, because her face is unknown to the enemy. Besides, Susan’s had years of successful field training and this is the opportunity she’s been waiting for.

While her flustered colleague, Nancy (Miranda Hart), serves as Susan’s liaison in the dingy, vermin-infested basement of CIA headquarters, her presence in Paris/Rome/Budapest enrages chauvinistic veteran operative Rick Ford (Jason Statham), intrigues an overly-amorous Italian associate (Peter Serafinowicz), and bewilders Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), a ruthless Bulgarian arms dealer.

After working with McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” writer/director Paul Feig tailored this cheerfully caustic, often profane, feminist project to her talents.

One of the funniest sequences involves gadgets Susan’s given: an arsenal disguised as stool softeners, anti-fungal cream and hemorrhoid wipes, suitable for her assumed identity as a frumpy housewife from Iowa.  Another involves Susan’s kitchen fight with an assassin (Nargis Fakhri) that’s been comically choreographed so that various cooking utensils become lethal weapons.

In addition to McCarthy, Feig’s casting is spot-on. With her crimson lips and haughty demeanor Rose Byrne is a classic femme fatale, while Jason Statham gets a chance to show his comedic timing, as his surly, dismissive, macho meathead is constantly confounded. Plus, there’s deft British comedienne Miranda Hart, suave Jude Law, no-nonsense Allison Janney and rapper 50-Cent – as himself.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 t 10, “Spy” is a silly, delightfully skewed 7, an absurdly amusing diversion.

“Love and Mercy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Love and Mercy” (Lionsgate & Roadside Attractions)

 

Unless you’re fascinated by watching a talented musician stricken by acute mental illness, Bill Pohlad’s eclectic, unconventional biopic of Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys, is rather mundane.

Paul Dano plays Wilson as a timid, troubled young California singer-songwriter, a solitary genius, churning out pop teen hits like “Surfin’ USA,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations” in the 1960s, and engaging in pharmaceutical experimentation while battling his abusive father/onetime manager, Murry (Bill Camp).

John Cusack plays Wilson as a despondent, lethargic, over-medicated adult in the 1980s. That’s when he bought a Cadillac from a beautiful blonde ex-model/saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), his wife-to-be. To her chagrin, Melinda discovers that Wilson’s life was, literally, manipulated and controlled by his creepy, tyrannical therapist/legal guardian, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

(FYI: Dr. Landy, a psychologist, was originally hired by Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn. He misdiagnosed Wilson as a paranoid schizophrenic, threatening to institutionalize him if he didn’t cooperate with Landy’s 24-hour treatment; Landy also worked with stars like Alice Cooper and Rod Steiger.)

Studded with heavy-handed metaphors (like Wilson in the deep end of the swimming pool), the narrative jumps back and forth between the two. This diversity is a jarring since, physically, the two actors playing Wilson don’t resemble one another.

That’s not even acknowledged by screenwriter Oren Moverman, who previously worked with director Todd Haynes, splitting Bob Dylan into six different people in “I’m Not There.” Moverman, apparently, revised Michael Alan Lerner’s original script.

The most memorable scenes show Wilson’s artistic process: composing at the piano, musing “Sometimes it scares me to think about where the music comes from. What if I lose it? What if I never get it back? What would I do then?”

Or obsessively working on the kaleidoscopic “Pet Sounds” album (1966) in experimental recording sessions with Wrecking Crew musicians. For avid Wilson fans, that – and the sound track – may be enough.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Love and Mercy” is an uneven, sanitized 6. It’s obvious in the “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” closing credits that this discordant, yet deferential project was made with the complete cooperation of Brian and Melinda Wilson.

 

 

“I’ll See You in My Dreams”

Susan Granger’s review of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (Beecker Street)

 

Appealing to a primarily geriatric audience, this gentle chick flick follows 70ish widowed Carol Peterson (Blythe Danner), whose husband died in an airplane crash 20 years ago; his insurance payoff hastened her relocation to a small home near a retirement community in Southern California.

Placidly determined to retain her independence while many of her friends are urging her to share their condominium complex, Carol enjoys the company of her aged dog Hazel, gardening, playing bridge and an occasional visit with her daughter (Malin Akerman). But when Hazel dies, Carol realizes how lonely she really is.

That’s why she strikes up a conversation with Lloyd (Martin Starr), the amiable, young poet who cleans her pool. A former singer and teacher, Carol opens up to him as one sip of chardonnay leads to another, then an apple martini, and soon they’re warbling in a karaoke bar.

Spotted by sassy Rona (Mary Kay Place), one of her gal pals, Carol reluctantly agrees to attend a senior citizen “speed dating” event and gives her phone number to Bill (gravelly-voiced Sam Elliott), a courtly newcomer to the community who has just bought a boat that’s anchored nearby.

When Rona and her other chums (Rhea Perlman, June Squibb) sample some medical marijuana, she joins them, breaking into goofy giggles as they’re stopped by a local cop as they walk back from a munchie run to the village market.

Written as a naturalistic dramedy by Marc Basch and director/editor Brett Haley with a running gag about a rat, its primary asset is radiantly elegant Blythe Danner, who creates a mature, nuanced character whose experiences and reactions touch a universal chord.

“People talk about living in the moment, like it’s some kind of a goal,” she muses. “What does that even mean?”

When Danner sings the Julie London favorite, “Cry Me a River,” it evokes memories of “Duets,” which was directed by her late, real-life husband, Bruce Paltrow, and starred their daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is a bittersweet 6, disarmingly reminiscent of an episode of TV’s “Golden Girls.”

 

“Entourage”

Susan Granger’s review of “Entourage” (HBO/Warner Bros.)

 

If you were enthralled by all eight seasons of the HBO show, you won’t want to miss the movie.

If you’re a newbie, you’ll have an all-access pass to glitz and glam, a hedonistic fantasy of Hollywood, parodying the decadence and outrageous excesses of the entertainment industry.

But who really cares about what happens to movie star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), his clueless half-brother, actor Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), and their buddies from Queens: glib superagent Ari (Jeremy Piven), pizza boy-turned-manager Eric (Kevin Connolly) and driver-turned-tequila mogul Turtle (Jerry Ferrara)?

The movie picks up where the series ended, as the ‘guys’ join Vince and a bevy of bikini-clad babes aboard his luxury yacht off the coast of Spain after his five-day marriage went kaput. Newly appointed head-of-production at a major studio, Ari wants Vince to star in “Hyde” – but Vince also wants to direct.

Six months and $15 million over-budget, Vince still hasn’t finished the film. Begging for more money brings them to Texas oil billionaire Larsen McCreadle (Billy Bob Thornton) and his spoiled son, Travis (Haley Joel Osment), who’s eager to visit Hollywood and bed actress Emily Ratajkowsi.

Meanwhile, Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is pregnant with Eric’s baby, Ari and his wife (Perrey Reeves) are in therapy, Turtle has become involved with MMA/UFC champion Ronda Rousey, and Drama’s in crisis because his X-rated home video has been leaked online.

On TV, I suspect the slick 30-minute episodes zipped by, but this two-hour movie, written and directed by “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin drags – despite 50+ cameos, including Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Alba, Kelsey Grammer, Armie Hammer, Liam Neeson, David Spade, Matt Lauer, Pharrell Williams Gary Busey, Bob Saget, Richard Schiff, Warren Buffett, Jon Favreau, Common, and Piers Morgan, along with New England Patriots Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, Green Bay Packer Clay Matthews and Seattle Seahawk Russell Wilson.

Since 2004, the movie business has changed; top talent agencies are now controlled by powerful private equity firms that focus on the bottom line so “Sadly, all good parties must come to an end.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Entourage” is a phony 5 – bromance is a bust.