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“Unforgettable”

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

 

When David Connover (Geoff Stults) takes up with Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) after his divorce from Tessa (Katherine Heigl), he has no idea about the can of mean-spirited worms he’s opening.

As this tepid psycho-sexual thriller begins, battered Julia is being interrogated as the only suspect in the murder of her abusive ex-boyfriend, Michael Vargas (Simon Kassianides), against whom she once got a restraining order.

Skip back six months to when Julia left San Francisco to begin a new life in Foothill, a (fictional) Southern California suburb, with her fiancé David and his young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice).  A former Wall Street hotshot, hunky David has just opened a boutique microbrewery in his hometown.

But when icy, embittered Tessa – Lily’s possessive mother – sees how happy he is with amiable Julia, she’s devastated. Her intuitive vulnerability is heightened because she has never been able to satisfy the expectations of her own rigid, perfectionist mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd).

We’re told that Julia doesn’t use Facebook, which is bizarre since she was an editor for an online literary publication in San Francisco. But that leaves a portal so Tessa can cyberstalk her, shrewdly creating a fake FB profile and utilizing it to contact Julia’s ex, as her devious revenge plot takes shape.

“Everyone’s got a weird ex, but this Psycho Barbie is something else,” warns Julia’s best friend (Whitney Cummings). “You need to come back home with me.”

Working from screenwriter Christina Hodson’s implausibly convoluted script, longtime producer/first-time director Denise Di Novi never alludes to skin color or class, cleverly casting blond, beautifully Botox’d Katherine Heigl as the sinister, sadistic, sociopathic villain.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unforgettable” is a flimsy, frustrating 4 – and quite forgettable.

04

“The Lost City of Z”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lost City of Z” (Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street)

Based on David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction best-seller, this saga chronicles the incredible adventures of a status-seeking British soldier, Col. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who explored the Amazon River a full century ago.

Dispatched in 1906 by the aristocratic Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett’s mission is to map the dangerous, uncharted realms of eastern Bolivia, where it borders with Brazil.

Thrashing through the South American rainforest with his Army comrades, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), plus requisite guides and porters, he discovers not only the source of the Rio Verde River but also tribal pottery and carvings, indications of an ancient city and long-lost civilization hidden somewhere in the dense foliage – and he is determined to find it.

Driven by this mystical, near-maniacal obsession, Fawcett learns a great deal about anthropology and endures an excruciating second expedition in 1911, accompanied by another explorer, scornful James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who becomes a dangerous liability.

Meanwhile, back in England, his dutiful wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and children become accustomed to his long absences. Eventually, his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) decides to join his third expedition in the 1925; they were never seen or heard from again.

As foretold by his indigenous guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello): “For you, there is no escape from the jungle.”

This quest concept started seven years ago with Brad Pitt. Several incarnations later, it’s chronologically adapted and referentially directed by James Gray (“The Immigrant”) with scenes subtly suggestive of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Yet cinematographer Darius Khondji never even comes close to John Boorman’s expansive, atmospheric imagery in “The Emerald Forest.”

Problem is: there’s little emotional involvement or critique of England’s patronizing imperialism, topics which intrigued Werner Herzog in “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lost City of Z” is a sprawling yet superficial 6. As Fawcett says, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

06

 

“The Promise”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Promise” (Open Road Films/Survivor Pictures)

 

Because of strong ties with the Turkish government, American presidents have never acknowledged the Ottoman Empire’s systematic annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1918 as “genocide.”

So this sprawling, historical epic begins in 1914 as Mikael Boghosian  (Oscar Isaac), an ambitious, young apothecary in Siroun, a small southern Turkish village, is betrothed a local girl so he can use her dowry to attend medical school in Constantinople, promising to marry her once he’s a doctor.

In cosmopolitan Constantinople (now Istanbul), naïve Mikael moves in with his father’s cousin, a local merchant, and meets vivacious, Paris-educated Ana Kasabian (Charlotte Le Bon), who is tutoring his nieces. Since Ana lives with an angry American journalist, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an ill-fated romantic triangle takes shape.

When Ottoman Turks enter World War I as allies of Germany, a classmate’s bribe gets Mikael a medical school deferment. But when anti-Armenian violence erupts, he’s sent to forced labor on the railroad.

When Mikael escapes, he returns to war-ravaged Siroun, reluctantly marries his fiancée, then hides in a mountain cabin. Meanwhile, inquisitive Chris Myers is chronicling the atrocities inflicted on the Armenian population, dispatching them to American newspapers via the Associated Press.

By this time, the contrived romantic rivalry subplot should be on a back burner. Unfortunately, it isn’t. So the real-life slaughter is trivialized into an awkward, overtly manipulative melodrama.

Weakly scripted by Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), it was financed by the late Armenian entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian – with a distinguished supporting cast: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jean Reno, James Cromwell, Rede Serbedzija and Angela Sarafyan.

Since the film’s inception, there’s been controversy. “The genocide is burned into the soul of the Armenian diaspora,” explains Terry George “And until they get some kind of recognition, it’s not going to go away.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Promise” is an earnestly solemn 6. But it loses its focus, diluting the emotional impact of the harrowing massacre.

06

“Tommy’s Honour”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tommy’s Honour” (Roadside Attractions)

It’s not easy to make an enthralling movie about golf. Ron Shelton came close with “Tin Cup,” starring Kevin Costner. Now, Jason Connery has come up with this 19th century drama about pioneers of the modern game: Tom Morris, known as Old Tom, and his son, Young Tommy.

Supporting his family of six, Old Tom (Peter Mullan) works as humble greenskeeper, caddy and instructor at Scotland’s renowned Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, where he’s known as a superb competitor and four-time winner of the British Open.

So it’s not surprising that Young Tom (Jack Lowden) makes his auspicious amateur debut in 1868 at the age of 17. Rebelling against authority, epitomized by the United Kingdom’s stratified class division, he’s determined to become a professional golfer, rather than lugging clubs, teeing up balls and catering to ill-mannered aristocrats.

“Your station in life was set before you were born,” chides the club captain (Sam Neill).

Inspired by Kevin Cook’s 2007 book of the same name, it’s adapted by Cook with (his wife) Pamela Marin and directed by Jason Connery (son of Sean Connery), who utilizes the rugged magnificence of Scotland’s rustic links which form a stark contrast to today’s well-manicured courses.

Challenging Establishment tradition with innovation, they pivot the generational struggles between a dour, deferential father and a willful, ambitious son, throwing in additional conflict when Young Tom falls in love with Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond), a spunky older woman with a scandalous past.

Neither Mullan nor Lowden are real-life golfers, although Connery tries hard to disguise their ineptitude.

FYI: Old Tom designed 70 courses, including Carnoustie, Muirfield, Prestwick, Royal County Down and Royal Dornoch. Young Tom died at the age of 24 but still holds the title as youngest major champion of all time. Both father and son were inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tommy’s Honour” scores a slow-paced, sporting 6. Too bad it was released before Father’s Day because that’s when the marketing would have soared.

06

“The Fate of the Furious”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Fate of the Furious” (Universal Pictures)

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The numbers tell the tale: the eighth installment of this long-running series revved up an estimated $532.5 million worldwide, setting a new record for an opening weekend.

Build around muscle cars, drag racing and the importance of family, this high-speed action thriller brings back Vin Diesel as gruff, monosyllabic Dominic Toretto, and it’s filled with spectacular, globe-spanning vehicular destruction.

In Havana, Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) interrupt their honeymoon so that he can race against the Cuban who tried to heist his cousin’s jalopy. Tinkering with the old car, Dom strips down the engine and installs a dangerous nitrous-oxide canister. You can already visualize what happens next.

Injecting vicious fuel, there’s a sociopathic supervillain, an icy hacker known as Cipher (Charlize Theron), who wants Dom to do a job for her. When he hesitates, she shows him something on her cellphone that changes his mind. What is it? We have to wait to find out.

Meanwhile, on a mission with lawman Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), his gang (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel) and Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to retrieve a powerful EMP device, Dom goes rogue and delivers it to Cipher.

So, shifting gears, they recruit Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a somewhat implausible twist since he was responsible for the death of original team member Han. Plus, there’s by-the-books Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood, resembling his clench-jawed father) and Helen Mirren as mysterious Magdalene.

Scripted by Chris Morgan and directed by F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton,” “The Italian Job”), there’s only one mention of Brian – a.k.a. Paul Walker, who died in a car crash in 2013 – cementing his spirit as an integral part of the gang.

FYI: There are no post-credit scenes so you don’t have to linger.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Fate of the Furious” is a slick yet shallow 6. So far, the “Fast and Furious” films have earned $4.4 billion worldwide, making it the most successful franchise in Universal’s history and the eighth highest-grossing film series.

06

 

“Gifted”

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

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If you’re searching for a fascinating, feel-good, family film with a provocative premise, choose “Gifted.”

Seven year-old Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), a child prodigy, lives happily in a coastal Florida trailer park with Uncle Frank (Chris Evans) and her one-eyed cat named Fred. But now it’s time for her to go to a real school and, hopefully, make some friends her own age.

Fred, a free-lance boat repairman, has home-schooled Mary. When he’s working or going out for an evening, Mary is cared for by Roberta (Octavia Spencer) a loving neighbor.

From the very first day, Mary’s astounding ability with numbers mystifies her first-grade teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slade), so the Principal (Elizabeth Marvel) recommends that Frank transfer Mary to an elite private school for gifted children – on full scholarship.

Problem is: Frank turns down the opportunity, saying he wants his young niece to lead have a normal, carefree childhood, unlike her mother/his sister, a brilliant mathematician, who committed suicide.

As the backstory unfolds, Mary’s wealthy grandmother, formidable Evelyn (Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan), from whom Frank has long been estranged, suddenly shows up, determined to take Mary to Boston, where her superior intellectual abilities can be properly challenged and cultivated at MIT. So a custody battle ensures.

Tom Flynn’s refreshingly original, often humorous screenplay is sensitively directed by Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer”), blending amusement with melodrama, adroitly avoiding sentimentality.

Some scenes are exquisite, like when Mary and Frank existentially discuss religion on the beach while the sun sets on the beach; it’s shown in silhouette as Mary climbs all over Frank, like he’s a jungle gym. Kudos to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, editor Bill Pankow and composer Rob Simonsen..

Endearing Mackenna Grace shows astonishing talent; she’s also Keifer Sutherland’s daughter on TV’s “Designated Survivor.” Chris Evans wisely jettisons Marvel’s Captain America paraphernalia to display compassionate conflict, while Octavia Spencer oozes warmth.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gifted” is a perceptively subtle, satisfying 7, packing an emotional punch.

07

 

“War Paint”

Susan Granger’s review of “War Paint” (Nederlander Theatre)

 

Alphabetically, it’s Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein. Now, if none of these names is familiar to you, this should not be your Broadway destination.

But if you’re eager to see two dueling divas conquer the cosmetics industry. Run to the box-office.

Their story began in the mid-1930s, when women realized that a freshly scrubbed face could be chemically enhanced, giving birth to the cosmetics industry.

In Manhattan, Elizabeth Arden’s “Red Door” warmly welcomed sophisticated socialites, as genteel Miss Arden, a Canadian WASP, dispensed eternal youth in pretty, pristine, rose-petal pink packages that, admittedly, cost more than the lotions they contained.

But then formidable Helena Rubenstein, a heavily-accented Polish Jew, returned from Europe with her own innovative, scientifically formulated rejuvenation creams.

Both were determined that American women should put their “Best Face Forward.”

A bitter rivalry ensued, as Ms. Arden’s ambitious, marketing-savvy husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), transferred his allegiance to Ms. Rubenstein, while Ms. Rubenstein’s gay right-hand man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), duplicitously delivered her secret ingredients to Ms. Arden’s laboratory.

After deliberately avoiding meeting one another, yet leading parallel lives with posh salons only a few blocks from one another on Fifth Avenue, both beauty entrepreneurs ruefully confess what they’ve sacrificed to achieve success – in “If I’d Been a Man.”

And they come to realize that savvy new competitors, like glitzy Charles Revson (Erik Liberman), are crowding their extravagantly expensive products off the shelves. Looking back, Ms. Rubenstein once noted, “With Arden’s packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world.”

Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s dual biography that became a PBS documentary, it’s created by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), and artfully staged by Michael Greif with Catherine Zuber’s chic period costumes, David Korins’ artful set, and Kenneth Posner’s flattering lighting.

But the character-driven concept is only skin deep, something one realizes only at the conclusion when both ferociously competitive makeup mavens thoughtfully question: “Did we make women free-er? Or did we enslave them?” One only wishes they’d pursued this pertinent dilemma a bit further.

“War Paint” is currently playing at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street.

 

 

“In and Of Itself”

Susan Granger’s review of “In and Of Itself” (Daryl Roth Theatre)

 

Magician Derek DelGaudio astounds audiences with his new one-man show, combining confessional storytelling with amazing effects, revolving around the philosophical concepts of illusion and identity.

Even before you’re seated, audience members are presented with a pegboard, displaying about 200 small cards that begin with I AM.  Each one has a different label, like “A Doctor,” “A Happy Housewife,” “A Pirate,” “A Skeptic,” “A Film Buff” or “A Nasty Woman” (that was me!). You pick the card that best describes you and then hand it to an usher. The stack is placed on a table on the stage.

Standing in front of a wall with six cut-out compartments, DelGaudio begins by explaining the disparate items on display. There’s a figure with a gun, a bottle of booze, a wolf’s head, a balancing scale, a cabinet filled with mail and a gold brick. Each diorama has its own symbolic meaning in his life, and each precedes a magic “trick.”

But trick is the wrong word. Each demonstration serves as a metaphor and is, therefore, an integral part of the performance. Which eventually includes identifying audience members by the card they chose.

That gold brick, for example, is vital to DelGaudio’s wizardry with playing cards, yet its subsequent “disappearance” is even more of a mystery. DelGaudio asks an audience member to name a Manhattan street and another to name a cross-street. Like Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. He then explains that the gold brick has been transported to that location; if you look for it, you will find it.

The most memorable feat revolves around the cabinet filled with mail. DelGaudio chooses a seemingly random audience member to select an envelope, then open it and read the contents – not out-loud but to herself/himself – as the audience watches. The heartfelt message is obviously very intimate and personal, and the participant is moved almost to tears. How does he do it? I have no idea.

Adroitly staged by Frank Oz with mood music by Mark Mothersbaugh and subtle lighting by Adam Blumenthal, it’s a dazzling theatrical display of the magical arts.

 

“The Ghost in the Shell”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Ghost in the Shell” (Paramount Pictures)

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If you’re into the latest whiz-bang technology, this dystopian sci-fi thriller is a live-action remake of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cyberpunk anime, based on Masamune Shirow’s popular 1989 manga series.

Its publicity campaign has focused on Scarlett Johansson’s appearing to be ‘almost’ naked, dashing around a futuristic cityscape in a flesh-colored, skin-tight casing; she’s a cyborg law-enforcement officer known as the Major. The gimmick is that when she dons this “thermoptic” suit, she is basically invisible.

Major Mira Killian is the first of her kind: a military-designed robot with a human brain. She’s an integral part of a counter-cyberterrorist task force, known as Public Service Section 9, operating under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano).

They’re pursuing a villain known as Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who has been eliminating Hanka Robotics scientists by hacking into the consciousness of different accomplices to make them commit murder.

Problem is: Kuze’s warnings about the company begin to dovetail with glitches in Major’s brain that make her more self-aware and increasingly curious about discovering her true identity – which is amplified by the insistence of her creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), that memory is irrelevant.

Director Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) pays homage to the original film and many scenes – like a cigarette-smoking surgeon in a sterile lab, a detective with eye implants that look like binoculars, and a fight scene in a shallow pool of water – come directly from the comic-book source.

Obviously, the Major’s nude-effect attire demanded the most attention. Textured in a puzzle-like pattern, the eye-catching camouflage suit was created by costume designers Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller, along with the CGI experts at Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based Weta Workshop.

FYI: Scientists are already working on an ultra-thin invisibility cloak that manipulates particular wavelengths of light in order to blend an object into the background.

Problem is: miscast Scarlett Johansson is never convincing in her struggle to discover her humanity. And the uproar over casting a Caucasian actress in an iconic Japanese story is understandable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Ghost in the Shell” is a frenetic 5, favoring style over substance.

05

“The Play That Goes Wrong”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Play That Goes Wrong” (Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre)

 

For sheer fun and laughter, you’re 100% right in choosing the hilarious “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

Imported from London’s West End after winning the coveted Olivier Award, it’s the Corney University Drama Society’s disaster-prone production of Susie H.K. Brideswell’s vintage “Murder at Haversham Manor.”

Even as the cast and crew are making last minute adjustments to the set, it begins with a warm welcome by the Society’s director, Chris Bean (Henry Shields), and the subsequent discovery of Charles Haversham’s corpse in the drawing room of his proper English country house, followed an investigation by Inspector Carter (Henry Shields).

As the whodunit unfolds, there’s deceased Charles (Greg Tannahill), and the suspects, including Charles’ deceitful brother, Max (Dave Hearn); Charles’ duplicitous fiancée, Sandra (Charlie Russell); Charles’ best-friend, Robert (Henry Lewis); and the old family butler, Perkins (Jonathan Sayer).

Meanwhile, as furniture falls, props flop, doors stick, scenery collapses and corpses walk, there’s the ubiquitous stage crew: distracted Trevor (Rob Falconer), who mismanages lights-and-sound while searching for his Duran Duran CD, and the hapless stage manager, Annie (played brilliantly by understudy Bryony Corrigan at the performance which I attended).

While the supremely talent cast delivers farcical slapstick performances, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python and “Noises Off,” the biggest kudos go to the scenic and lighting designers Nigel Hook and Rick Mountjoy who create the visual mayhem.

Devised by the collaborative group known as the Mischief Theater, it’s cleverly scripted by twentysomethings Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – from the London Academy of Dramatic Art (LAMBDA) – and adroitly directed by Mark Bell – with utmost precision and a not-so-subtle a nod to the receptiveness of American audiences.

There’s a line, “The set’s a bloody deathtrap,” and I’m told the all-British cast, making their Broadway debut, has acquired T-shirts stamped with that dialogue. I’m tempted to get one too…eagerly anticipating their sequels: “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and “A Comedy about a Bank Robbery.”