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“Finding Neverland”

Susan Granger’s review of “Finding Neverland” (Lunt-Fontanne Theater: 2014-15 season)

 

While theatrical politics often propel Broadway’s Awards season, Peter Pan can crow because “Finding Neverland” sprinkles its own fairy dust, becoming one of the season’s most fanciful musicals.

With music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy and book by James Graham (based on the movie and Allan Knee’s “The Man Who Was Peter Pan”), it’s the somewhat idealized but, nevertheless, engrossing story of how playwright James M. Barrie came to write his beloved masterpiece, “Peter Pan.”

In 1904, London, Barrie (Matthew Morrison) is coping with an overbearing American producer, Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer), who’s demanding a new drawing-room comedy. Frustrated and bereft of ideas, Barrie goes to the park, where he’s intrigued by four mischievous lads playing games. That inspires him to jot down ideas about a mythical place called Neverland, where boys never grow up.

Much to the dismay of his social-climbing wife (Teal Wicks), Barrie becomes enamored of the lads’ ailing, widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly), although their relationship remains properly chaste, despite the suspicions of her strait-laced mother, Mrs. DuMaurier (Carolee Carmello).

Artfully directed by Diane Paulus (“Pippin,” “Hair”) and athletically choreographed by Mia Michaels, it’s enchanting – with much credit going to Scott Pask’s set, Jon Driscoll’s projections, Kenneth Posner’s imaginative lighting, Paul Kieve’s illusions, Suttriat Anne Larlab’s costumes, Richard Mawbey’s hair/makeup and Daniel Wurtzel’s “air sculpting” with flying effects by ZFX, Inc.

Playing Barrie marks Matthew Morrison’s first return to Broadway since 2008’s “South Pacific”; for the past six seasons, he’s been starring as Will Schuester on TV’s “Glee” – and Kelsey Grammer was last seen on-stage in the revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” The roles of the children – Peter, George, Jack and Michael – are shared by multiple talented kids.

FYI: J.M. Barrie gave all the “Peter Pan” rights to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1929, which was confirmed when he died in 1937. Since then, the hospital has received royalties every time the play is performed, as well as from the sale of Peter Pan books and other merchandise. Barrie requested that the amount should never be revealed – and the hospital has honored his wishes.

The original Broadway cast recording of “Finding Neverland” will be available on June 23.

“The Liar”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Liar” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

If you’re yearning for a witty, sophisticated comedy, see “The Liar” at the Westport Country Playhouse.

David Ives’ contemporary adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th century romantic romp about a compulsive liar is filled with mischievous sparkle.

Set in Paris in 1643, it revolves around Dorante (Aaron Krohn), a charming cad who arrives in the Tuileries Garden, where he meets Cliton (Rusty Ross), a manservant who cannot tell a lie. While audaciously spinning tales of his military adventures, Dorante falls in love with vivacious Clarice (Kate MacCluggage), not realizing she’s secretly engaged to his pugnacious friend, Alcippe (Philippe Bowgen).  Although Clarice’s more reserved friend Lucrece (Monique Barbee) is aware of Dorante’s glib duplicity, she’s intrigued by him and would make a far better match.

Adding to the fanciful, farcical fun, there’s Dorante’s gullible father (Brian Reddy) and Cliton’s befuddlement with identical twin maids (Rebekah Brockman): one saucy, the other strait-laced.

Commissioned by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where it was originally staged in 2010, it’s meticulously composed in rhyming verse – iambic pentameter – by David Ives (“Venus in Fur”) and propelled by Penny Metropulos’ adroit direction.

In the demanding leading role, Aaron Krohn exhibits dazzling linguistic panache, delving into every nuance of David Ives’ imaginative puns and silly jokes in fluid couplets. Indeed, every member of the cast delivers crystal-clear vowels and crisp consonants.

Kristen Robinson’s superb set, consisting of four stylized trees, is minimalistic, in contrast with costumer Jessica Ford’s frilly gowns and satin trousers, illuminated by lighting designer Matthew Richards.

Fittingly, the play concludes with, “How liars are punished by their own lies!/Was not the moral of this exercise. But rather how, amidst life’s contradictions,/Our lives can out-fick the finest fictions.”

You can catch “The Liar” at the Westport Country Playhouse through May 23. For tickets and information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

 

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Warner Bros.)

 

Wow! Director/writer/producer George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action adventure is a blast!

While wearily haunted ex-cop Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is the titular hero, hunted in the toxic, dystopian Wasteland, Charlize Theron delivers a powerhouse performance as Imperator Furiosa, the most exciting sci-fi protagonist since Ellen Ripley (“Alien”).

As George Miller explains, “What looks like testosterone-fueled summer escape is actually a badass feminist action flick. The men do the damage but the women restore humanity.”

Furiosa is a War Rig operator who’s determined to wreak revenge for her past suffering by smuggling the prized Five Wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keogh, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton) of the tyrannical warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), to safety in the Green Place.

They’ve been enslaved in the Citadel to breed and provide breast milk to the white-painted, tattooed troops, a.k.a. War Boys (including Nicolas Hoult), who dream of an idyllic afterlife in Valhalla.

Since both Max and Furiosa are pursued by Immortan Joe and his crazed son, Corpus Colossus (Quentin Kenihan), they reluctantly team up for mutual survival, battling the Gas Town thugs and Bullet Farmer gang, along with the underground Buzzard tribe and the stealthy Rock Riders.

British actor Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Locke”) and Charlize Theron (Oscar-winner for “Monster,” “Prometheus”) are dynamite together, wreaking spectacular vehicular vengeance.

Back in 1979, George Miller created iconic Mad Max, catapulting Mel Gibson to stardom as the righteous, leather-jacketed nomad. But its allegorical antecedents go back to classic Greek mythology (Odysseus), Westerns (“The Man With No Name”), even “Star Wars” Han Solo.

“One of the ideas that drove ‘Mad Max,’ and drives ‘Fury Road,’ was Alfred Hitchcock’s notion about making films that can be watched anywhere in the world without subtitles,” Miller says, explaining how his production team used music to viscerally propel the plot. Miller also recruited playwright Eve Ensler (“Vagina Diaries”) to authenticate the depiction of vulnerable, abused women.

FYI: With her bright red hair, it’s easy to spot Riley Keough, who is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an assaultive, intense 8, delivering an outrageously relentless adrenaline rush.

 

“Hot Pursuit”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hot Pursuit” (Warner Bros.)

 

It’s truly pathetic when the out-take bloopers during the end credits are more amusing than any scenes in the shoddy film – and they’re not even all that funny.

Petite Reese Witherspoon (“Legally Blonde”) and statuesque Sofia Vergara (TV’s “Modern Family”) are beautiful, gifted comediennes, so why they wasted their energy and talent on this vacuous, buddy/odd couple-comedy is a profound mystery.

Uptight, overly-eager Officer Rose Cooper (Witherspoon) is a by-the-book, second-generation San Antonio cop who has a lot to prove when she gets her first chance in the field after impulsively tasering the mayor’s unarmed teenage son who yelled, “I got shotgun,” because he wanted dibs on the front passenger seat of the car.

She’s assigned to escort feisty Danielle Riva (Vergara), the sassy, soon-to-be-widowed wife of a Colombian drug dealer, to court in Dallas to testify in front of a grand jury against a major drug kingpin (Joaquin Cosio). But before they can leave the Riva home, two different sets of assassins appear: gun-toting mobsters and crooked cops.

So the women ‘borrow’ a nearby convertible and take off. After a Texas APB is issued for their capture, they’re really on-the-lam – with some questionable ‘baking powder’ in the trunk of the car.

Recklessly written by David Feeney (TV’s “2 Broke Girls”)  and John Quaintance  (TV’s “Ben and Kate”) and sluggishly directed by Anne Fletcher (“The Guilt Trip,” “27 Dresses”), it’s utterly contrived and their bickering is so weak and formulaic that it often comes across as desperate.

Obviously, they were vainly attempting to recreate the combustible chemistry generated in “The Heat” (2013), an action-comedy which teamed Sandra Bullock with Melissa McCarthy. Adding insult to injury, Witherspoon and Vergara cavort, clinch and lip-lock in the un-sexiest lesbian scene in history.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hot Pursuit” is a lame, tedious 3. It’s cringe-worthy.

“Far From the Madding Crowd”

Susan Granger’s review of “Far From the Madding Crowd” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s genteel adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic 19th century novel is beautiful to look at – filmed in bucolic Dorset, Somerset and Oxfordshire by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen.

But its defiantly independent, free-spirited heroine, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), emerges as capricious, even by Victorian standards, her innate dignity diminished by selfish ambition and her smirking, impetuous thoughtlessness.

On a small farm in southwest England, 200 miles from London, Bathsheba learns that she’s inherited her uncle’s vast estate – making this country lass the reluctant recipient of three marriage proposals.

Bathsheba’s first is from rugged shepherd Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts), who becomes her moral compass and whose name denotes strength and stability, even when she brusquely rejects him, noting, “I have no need for a husband. I don’t want to be some man’s property.”

Then there’s her wealthy, honorable, middle-aged neighbor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who offers her financial security – with poignant persistence.

Last and least appealing, there’s mercurial Sgt. Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a charming cad whom she recklessly marries, a decision she immediately – and understandably – regrets, since he loves another.

As Thomas Hardy states: “When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who never had any strength to throw away.”

Sturdily scripted by David Nicholls (“One Day”) and melodramatically directed by Vinterberg (“The Hunt,” “The Celebration”), this unimaginative, abbreviated revision eliminates much of the essential character development and pales in comparison with John Schlesinger’s 1967 version, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

FYI: Bathsheba Everdene preceded Katniss Everdeen by 134 years, although “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins has admitted she swiped her protagonist’s surname from this Thomas Hardy tale. And Hardy’s title comes from Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem, referencing a quiet country churchyard, far away from London’s chaos.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a sturdy, somber 7, a sweeping romance, redolent with sheep-dipping, hay-stacking and windswept moors.

“Iris”

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

 

This cinematic portrait of indomitable, 93 year-old Manhattan fashionista Iris Apfel is the penultimate film from the late documentarian Albert Maysles; his final film will be “In Transit.” And it’s not unlike his “Grey Gardens” (1975), which profiled reclusive eccentrics who were related to Jacqueline Kennedy.

Born Iris Barrel in 1921 in Astoria, Queens, Iris is the only child of Samuel Barrel, whose family owned a glass-and-mirror business, and his wife Sadye, who ran a fashion boutique. After studying art history, Iris worked for “Women’s Wear Daily,” interior designer Elinor Johnston, and Illustrator Robert Goodman.

After she married Carl Apfel in 1948, they launched the textile firm: Old World Weavers. Having no children, they globe-trotted, acquiring an eclectic collection of exotic souvenirs. During the filming, Carl turned 100. Several years ago, “Architectural Digest” slyly described their luxurious Park Avenue apartment as looking “a little as if the Collyer brothers had moved in with Madame de Pompadour.”

From 1950 to 1993 – from Truman’s administration to Clinton’s – Iris was involved in the White House interior design restoration projects of nine presidents.

Famous for her lament, “There is so much sameness. I hate it!” Iris always wears enormous owl glasses, costume jewelry necklaces, along with a multitude of glittering bracelets and clothing adorned with feathers, prints and bright colors, advising, “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed.”

Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Harold Koda cites items from the exhibit, “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection,” which opened in 2005 and has since traveled to other museums.

Unlike other documentarians who prefer to remain in the background, Albert Maysles appears, not only on-camera, but also as an off-camera presence, speaking with Ms. Apfel.

Dispensing wit, charm and wisdom, elderly Iris advocates the values and work ethic she learned as a child: “I feel lucky to be working. If you’re lucky enough to do something you love, everything else follows.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Iris” is a splashy, stylish 7, just like Iris who dubs herself “a geriatric starlet.”

“Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” (Sony/Columbia)

 

Since Kevin James’ “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” (2009) earned $146 million in the US alone, a slapstick sequel seemed inevitable.

No longer prowling the New Jersey shopping center, roly-poly, buffoonish Paul Blart (James) is now on patrol at the Wynn Las Vegas & Encore Resort. But he’s suffered some hard times.

Less than a week after getting married, his wife (Jayma Mays) filed for divorce. Then his mother (Shirley Knight) was run over by a milk truck. So when he receives an invitation to a security officers’ trade convention in Las Vegas, Paul and his UCLA-bound daughter Maya (Raini Rodriguez) head for Nevada. Seriously delusional Paul is hoping he’ll be asked to be the keynote speaker because of his Mall heroics.

At the Wynn Hotel, he meets the general manager, Davina Martinez (Daniella Alonso), and head of security, Eduardo (Eduardo Verastegui), while Maya becomes friends with the hotel valet, Lane (David Henrie).

At the same time, a wily thief (Neal McDonough) is ready to run off with the Wynn Las Vegas & Encore Resort’s priceless art collection, disguising his goons as members of the hotel staff. Needless to say, boorish Paul is on the job, if not his Segway, recruiting his security-guard buddies (Loni Love, Gary Valentine, Shelly Desai) to join his Taser-toting team for slapstick shenanigans.

Working from a pedestrian script by Kevin James and Nick Bakay, director Andy Fickman (“Parental Guidance”) plugs the Wynn property continually, including a glimpse of the lavish aquatic theater presentation “Le Reve” and a cameo of mogul Steve Wynn emerging from his tanning bed.

FYI: The first commercial film shot on Steve Wynn’s property, it’s also the first movie to qualify for Nevada’s new film tax credit, amounting to $4.3 million.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” is a tacky 2, as the obvious product placement and Kevin James’ buffoonish charm quickly run cold.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Susan Granger’s review of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (Disney/Marvel Studios)

 

Good News: If you’re looking for POW! BAM! SMASH! cartoonish action, you get your money’s worth.

Bad News: Juggling a kaleidoscope of superheroes, as Tony Stark/Iron Man says, “It’s long – Eugene O’Neill long.”

You’d better know your “Avengers” franchise history because this new installment begins mid-mission, as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) battle a battalion of H.Y.D.R.A. bad guys to capture Loki’s scepter with its powerful Infinity Stone.

What’s Ultron? A sparkly computer program, concocted as a global protection system by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. What emerges, instead, is a rogue, red-eyed, megalomaniacal A.I. colossus, drolly voiced by James Spader, mockingly humming Pinocchio’s “No Strings” anthem as a menacing mantra and viewing humans as the world’s biggest threat.

In the battle-riddled, Eastern European country of Slovenia, there’s subplot introducing ‘gifted’ twins: Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) who become elusive Quicksilver and mind-manipulating Scarlet Witch. Appearing mid-way, an angelic android, Vision (Paul Bettany), synthesizes the consciousness of Tony Stark’s devoted helpmate J.A.R.V.I. S.

Writer/director Joss Whedon punctuates the FX-driven mayhem with an ongoing flirtation between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, along with dream-like flashbacks showing the character conflict of each squad member confronting his/her flaws and/or failings.

There are glib quips, like Hawkeye’s pregnant wife’s earnest, “You know, I totally support your avenging…” and campy, irreverent humor when various Avengers try to lift Thor’s hammer.

For an exhausting 2½ hours, it’s repetitive sound and fury – yes, I mean cranky Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the S.H.I.E.L.D. carrier, along with Anthony Mackie as The Falcon. As always, there’s a hint of what’s to come during closing credits.

When Joss Whedon introduced this enormous Marvel assemblage to the press, he confessed, “I’m really tired of it.” Was he joking? I doubt it.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a spectacularly overstuffed 6 – with more spectacle than substance.

“The Water Diviner”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Water Diviner” (Warner Bros.)

 

It’s not surprising that most actors yearn to become directors, and Russell Crowe (“Gladiator,” “Master and Commander”) has the clout to get the financing for this debut feature. I suspect he learned a lot and will not make the same mistakes the next time.

Northern Australian farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) lost three sons during the W.W. I Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915. After his grieving wife commits suicide four years later, he embarks on a tortured quest to find his sons’ remains and bring them back to be buried beside her in ‘hallowed’ ground.

Connor’s a “water diviner,” meaning he’s got a knack for finding underground water using dowsing rods. Using that mystical ability, he’s sure he can locate his fallen sons amid thousands of unmarked graves.

Arriving in Istanbul, he’s rebuffed by the British military. Undaunted, he settles into a local hotel, where he’s befriended the young son of a Turkish widow, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko). She finds brawny Connor attractive but her brutish brother-in-law is persistently trying to make her his second wife.

Admiring his persistence, an Australian official (Jai Courtney) and two Turkish officer (Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz) aid in his quest, despite the on-going war with the Greeks that Connor doesn’t understand.

The implausible, often incoherent screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios explains little of Turkey’s enduring feudal history, which makes continuity confusing. And their inclusion of a romantic subplot never evokes the viewer’s emotions, except anti-war sentiment when Connor bitterly notes, “I filled their heads with nonsense – God and King and country.”

Characterized by abrupt action beats, Crowe’s muddled direction lacks pacing; the melodramatic flashbacks of the Gallipoli bloodbath are repetitious. Wearing an Indiana Jones fedora, Crowe injects several chases – through the Turkish marketplace or galloping on horseback through the countryside. There’s even a visit to Istanbul’s legendary Blue Mosque – exquisitely photographed by Andrew Lesnie.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Water Diviner” is a poignant, somber 6, quenching your thirst for Crowe.

“Ex Machina”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ex Machina” (A24 Films)

 

Despite the hoopla over mega-franchise films, Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller is the most intriguing movie I’ve seen so far this year.

As it begins, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a geeky, 24 year-old computer programmer, wins a company ‘contest,’ entitling him to spend a week at the remote Alaska estate belonging to his legendary boss, the brilliant-but-elusive billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

Arriving at the mountain retreat by helicopter, Caleb makes his way into Bateman’s modernist, minimalist glass-and-steel compound; it’s a high-tech research facility, much of which is subterranean.

An exercise/fitness fanatic, alcoholic Nathan tries to put him at ease, but Caleb is astounded by the Jackson Pollock paintings and other fine art, along with Kyoto (Sonoya Mizuno), a beautiful, silent servant.

Caleb’s even more awestruck when he learns the purpose of his visit. He’s to take part in the Turing Test, named for British artificial intelligence guru Alan Turing and referenced in “Blade Runner” – because Nathan has created what he believes is a sentient robot. Her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Over the next few days, Caleb interacts with Ava, politely posing questions and evaluating her responses. As their sessions grow more and more ominous, the flirtatious, free-thinking android adapts to this stranger, slyly and seductively establishing the roots of a friendship and, perhaps, more.

That’s all you need to know. Revealing more would ruin the surprises and dilute the suspense.

Novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”) makes an auspicious directing debut in this chilling exploration of the human psyche – in a style eerily reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick.

Working on a $13 million budget, kudos to production designer Mark Digby, costumer Sammy Sheldon Differ and cinematographer Rob Hardy.

FYI: Seen in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Domhnall Gleeson is the son of Irish actor Brendan Gleeson; he’s starring in George Lucas’ upcoming “Star Wars.” Oscar Isaac is best known for “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Most Violent Year,” while Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is an ex-ballerina, last seen in “Anna Karenina,” and “A Royal Affair.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ex Machina” is an intense, mind-melding 9, derived from the Greek phrase “Deus ex machina,” or “god from the machine,” referring to a dramatic, problem-solving plot device.