"
"

“Party Face”

Susan Granger’s review of “Party Face” (City Center Stage II – Off-Broadway)

 

Oscar-winning actress Hayley Mills (“The Parent Trap,” “Pollyanna”) stars in Isobel Mahon’s Irish comedy about a festivity that’s full of surprises.

Set in the newly remodeled kitchen of a flat in Dublin, Mollie Mae (Gina Costigan) is hosting her first cocktail party after spending three weeks in a psychiatric hospital.  Mollie’s husband left her six weeks earlier after 16 years of marriage, causing her to suffer a nervous breakdown in the cereal aisle of a supermarket.

Melancholy, morose Mollie’s guests include her elegant mother, Carmel (Hayley Mills), her acerbic sister Maeve (Brenda Meaney), her obsessive-compulsive psych ward roommate Bernie (Klea Blackhurst) and her slyly nasty neighbor Chloe (Allison Jean White).

Shallow, status-conscious Carmel arrives first, clad in pink silk capri pants and high heels, taking a quick look around and immediately undermining Mollie, noting: “Lovely flowers…in my day, you never saw a lily outside of a funeral parlor, but, sure, that’s progress…”

While critical, controlling Connie holds center-stage throughout most of the forced gaiety that includes a conga line, the guest mix and mingle, trading barbs about men, marriage, mental health…and an unusual topiary.

Now almost 72 years old, beguiling Ms. Mills deserves a better vehicle than this trifling two-act, occasionally clever cluster of clichéd canapes, directed by Amanda Bearse, designed by Jeff Ridenour, lit by Joyce Liao and costumed by Lara de Bruijn.

“Party Face” plays at Stage II, New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, until April 8.

“The Pirates of Somalia”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Pirates of Somalia” (SP Releasing)

 

After newspaper headlines and Tom Hanks’ “Captain Phillips” stirred interest in piracy and hijackings of cargo ships on the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa, this dramedy delves into the culture of Somalia and its precarious democracy.

Tired of receiving rejection letters from leading magazines, wannabe Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters) relishes a chance encounter in Toronto with his idol, revered newspaperman Seymour Tobin (Al Pacino), who urges him to find a crazy, compelling story and pursue it.

Having once written a term paper on Somalia, Bahadur borrows money from his mother (Melanie Griffith) to travel there, hoping to meet with its newly-elected President in Puntland in order to understand the complex socio-economics of the region, once known as a “land of poets,” where people resolved their disputes with language.

At the airport, Bahadur is met by his translator Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, Oscar-nominated for “Captain Phillips”), who advises him not to follow up on CBS News’ offer of $1,000 to anyone who can get hostage footage from a ship that’s been captured by Somali pirates.

So Bahadur begins his research by scheduling interviews with various Somali bigwigs, all of whom expect to be bribed with the local drug called khat, a chewable narcotic plant which can be easily purchased in the open marketplace. Since Bahadur’s a stoner, he understands this all too well.

Which is the film’s weakness. As portrayed by Evan Peters (TV’s “American Horror Story”), Bahadur is an annoying wiseass and, therefore, not as likeable and sympathetic a protagonist as one might wish, even though he eventually becomes an acknowledged ‘authority’ on Somalia.

Based on Jay Bahadur’s non-fiction “The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World,” it’s written and directed as a first-feature-film by Bryan Buckley, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for his short “Asad,” featuring Somali refugees.

While Buckley’s effectiveness often gets sidetracked by simplistic subplots and superfluous characters, his casting is authentic, even listing each actor’s Somali refugee status in the end credits.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Pirates of Somalia” is a simplistic 6, enhanced by another superb performance by Barkhad Abdi.

06

“Early Man”

Susan Granger’s review of “Early Man” (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate)

With a filmography that includes “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit” and “Shaun the Sheep,” U.K.-based Aardman Animation specializes in Claymation, a labor-intensive form of stop-motion that uses figures made of clay.

Animators pose the figures for each frame – every movement, every gesture – with 24 frames for each second of film. For every shot, the seven-inch-tall silicone figures are bolted into place on cleverly detailed sets that stand about two-feet high. Mouth movements are synched to pre-recorded vocal tracts.

Claymation began back in 1897, as artists sculpted characters from modeling clay, then photographed them, painstakingly moving the figurines ever so slightly between each picture. When displayed in rapid succession, the pictures created the illusion of movement. Edison Manufacturing produced the first clay animation film, “The Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Dream,” in 1908.

Set sometime between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, Aardman’s most recent release takes place around Manchester, England, where the young Neaderthal Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) suddenly finds himself and his haplessly inept, rabbit-hunting clan on the verge of eviction from their once-isolated forest.

Greedy Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston with an exaggerated French accent) has dispatched his colonizing troops on bronze-armored mammoths to mine ore in their verdant valley.

So Dug’s cave-dwelling tribe’s future depends on winning a soccer showdown against Nooth’s formidable footballers.

Fortunately, Dug’s ragtag, inexperienced team is coached by Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams), who dreams of being a soccer star but isn’t allowed to play on sexist Lord Nooth’s team. Extensive training montages prove that she’s determined to prove herself on the pitch.

Utilizing quirky characters created by Nick Park, it’s superficially scripted by Mark Burton and James Higginson as the first prehistoric underdog sports movie. Too bad it’s not more original and inventive. All the sight/sound gags are predictable and formulaic, even clichéd, many stemming from “The Flintstones.”

The smartest and most memorable character is Dug’s sentient wild boar Hognob, whose grunts and snuffles supplied by director Nick Park.

On the Grange Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Early Man” is a silly 6, a primeval disappointment.

06

“The 15:17 to Paris”

Susan Granger’s review of “The 15:17 to Paris” (Warner Bros.)

 

On Thalys passenger train 9364 bound for Paris on August 21, 2015, three brave Americans intercepted a terrorist who was determined to kill as many people as possible.

Their spontaneous heroism inspired Clint Eastwood not only to film their story but also to cast Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler as themselves.

Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone and Oregon National Guardsman Alex Skarlatos were vacationing in Europe with their childhood friend Anthony Sadler, who was studying for a kinesiology degree from Cal State, when a heavily armed gunman opened fire on their high-speed train.

With the help of French businessman Mark Moogalian, they subdued and disarmed 22 year-old Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasini), the Lebanese assailant. The Frenchman and three Americans subsequently received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, from President Francois Holllande at the Elysee Palace.

Following “Sully” about pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger and “American Sniper” about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, this marks the third film in a row in which Clint Eastwood has depicted real-life events, honoring ordinary people who have greatness thrust upon them.

Screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal had already adapted their inspirational story, when Eastwood asked the young men to play themselves, a concept that’s been done before. Jackie Robinson played the lead in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950) and World War II veteran Audie Murphy starred in “To Hell and Back” (1955).

Although they’d never taken acting lessons, all three immediately agreed, co-starring with experienced pros like Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer. Now, they’re eagerly pursing further acting jobs.

Unfortunately, there’s little to the script beyond basic exposition – nothing except adolescent flashbacks that would reveal the backstory or motivation of each of the participants.  Prior to the terrorism, they’d traveled to Rome, Venice and Berlin, roaming bars and discos, before deciding to go to Amsterdam, instead of Spain.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The 15:17 to Paris” is a re-enacted 5, an authentic historical event that was ripped from the headlines.

05

“Winchester”

Susan Granger’s review of “Winchester” (CBS Films)

 

Supposedly “inspired by actual events,” this Gothic ghost story revolves around widowed Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren), who inherited a vast fortune from her husband, William, whose family founded the fabled Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven, Connecticut.

From 1864 until her death in 1922, Sarah supervised construction of an elaborate estate In San Jose, California, a project supposedly instigated by a New England seer to delay her own demise and, perhaps, calm the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles.

Deeply superstitious, Sarah would disappear each night to her “séance” room where spirits would guide her in designing new spaces. Eventually, there were 161 rooms with circular staircases leading nowhere, doors leading to sheer drops and other architectural oddities.

Windows contained 13 panes of glass, chandeliers had 13 crystals, and 13 nails were used in securing wood. Despite her oddities, Sarah’s construction crew adored her; many were paid triple their ordinary salary to insure their absolute loyalty.

As part of a power struggle within Winchester, where she was a 50% shareholder, reclusive Sarah, clad in mourning black, agrees to submit to a psychiatric assessment done by laudanum-addicted Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who has been bribed to declare her mentally unfit.

Sketchily written and directed by Australian twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig (“Jigsaw,” “Predestination”), it lacks tension and suspense, turning out to be more eerie than horrifying.

Curiously, Sarah Winchester’s true story is even more controversial, according to biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo (“Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester: Heiress to the Rifle Fortune”).

While Sarah came from a long line of woodworkers and believed in spiritualists, there was never any ‘gun guilt.’  “Nobody felt guilty about guns at the turn of the 20th century,” Ignoffo maintains. “Everybody used them and needed them.”

“The fundamental lie is that the building of the house went on 24/7,” she continues. “Mrs. Winchester didn’t even live in the house for the last 15 years of her life.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Winchester” is a tedious 3, a misfire.

03

 

 

“Black Panther”

Susan Granger’s review of “Black Panther” (Marvel Studios/Buena Vista-Disney)

 

Exactly a decade after “Iron Man” launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a powerful, new superhero has arrived – and he’s sensational!

The warrior T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the Prince/protector of the fantastical African nation of Wakanda, an isolated, secretive kingdom that’s rich with Vibranium – the mythic ‘alien’ metal that comprises Captain America’s shield. This invaluable resource has enabled incredible technological advances including magnetic transfers, superconductors, and spaceships.

Following the death of his father in a terrorist attack, noble T’Challa must fight M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the rival Jabari tribe, to claim his heritage.

Then there’s the threat posed by predatory arms dealer/thief Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), whom T’Challa intercepts in South Korea, aided by a CIA operative (Martin Freeman).

Eventually, the fight for Vibranium has T’Challa facing off with villainous Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a swaggering former Navy SEAL from Oakland, CA. whose father was Wakandan.

Plus, there’s T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and his mentor, the spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), hiding a secret of his own.

The formidable female characters are T’Challa’s love interest, the beautiful War Dog spy Nakia (Lupito Nyong’o); his feisty little sister/gadgets guru, Shari (Letitia Wright); Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett); and Okoya (Danai Guyira), leader of his Dora Milaja security team.

Written with insightful wit by Joe Robert Cole (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) and director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), its complex plot delves into familiar themes like revenge v. justice, duty v. conscience and why identity matters.

Kudos to cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Oscar-nominated for “Mudbound”) for creating a visual feast.

The first African-American superhero to appear in American comics, Black Panther was created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four No. 52. Historical footnote: Black Panther appeared three months before the Black Panther Party formed during the Civil Rights Movement.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Black Panther” pounces with an exciting, exhilarating 8, an ambitious, socially relevant, Afro-futurist origin story.

08

“Peter Rabbit”

Susan Granger’s review of “Peter Rabbit” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Animation)

peter

The gentle, whimsical tales of Beatrix Potter’s beloved blue-jacketed bunny have been transformed into a ‘hip’ hybrid live-action/digital-animation adventure.

Mischievous Peter (voiced by James Cordon) habitually raids the vegetable patch that belongs to cranky Mr. McGregor (voiced by Sam Neill), accompanied by his neurotic cousin Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody) and younger sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (voiced by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, respectively).

One day after chasing Peter, elderly Mr. McGregor suffers a fatal heart attack, bequeathing the bucolic property to his fussy, fastidious great-nephew, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), an ambitious executive, passed over for promotion at Harrods, who plans to sell the Lake District farm and invest in his own toy store in London.

“I’ve got nothing against the countryside,” he says. “I just find it disgusting.”

Upgrading vegetable-patch security means not only evicting Peter and his family but also Pigling Bland (voiced by Ewen Leslie) and the amiable hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (voiced by Sia).

But plans change after Thomas meets lovely Bea (Rose Byrne), an artistic neighbor who has maternally befriended the reckless, rebellious rabbits who have lived together – without parental supervision – in a nearby burrow since old Mr. McGregor baked their father into a pie.

Adapted by Rob Lieber, working with director Will Gluck (“Easy A,” “Annie” remake), it’s flippant and frantically paced, as the furry, photorealistic, anthromorphic critters bounce to pop tunes and enjoy gross-out humor.

It’s a shame that their good intentions are thwarted by an unfortunate scene in which Peter and his friends deliberately pelt allergic McGregor with blackberries, mocking allergy-sufferers and trivializing food-induced anaphylaxis, a life-endangering condition.

After angry advocates and parents of children who suffer from similar food allergies urged a film boycott, Sony issued an apology about not being more aware and sensitive to this serious health issue.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Peter Rabbit” scampers in with a strained 6, as the silly slapstick gags get a bit too sadistic.

06

 

 

“Sand on the Floor”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sand on the Floor”

SOTF POSTER 1

Documentary filmmaker Steve Rockstein reveals the spiritual history of Jews on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas through the DNA of the oldest Synagogue under the American flag.

Through indelible images and insightful interviews, Rockstein traces the Congregation’s Spanish Inquisition roots to the relevance of its uncertain future.

In the Prologue, Professors Jane S. Gerber and Judah M. Cohen relate the flight of Sephardic Jews to the Danish West Indies from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, while one of their descendants, Dorothy Isaacs, a Virgin Islander, focuses on the founding of the Synagogue in downtown Charlotte Amalie, detailing how the building is interwoven in the tapestry of her life.

The historical Synagogue is distinguished by its sand-covered floor. Its cherished origins can be traced back to when Jews were forbidden to worship and placed sand on the floor to muffle the incantations of their prayers. Some believe the sand symbolizes the Sinai Desert through which the Israelites wandered for 40 years after the Exodus, or the splitting of the Red Sea.

Yet no institution is devoid of conflict. In the 1950s, there was a schism between the Sephardic and Reform movement, resulting in a transitional period which evolved into the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas with progressively changing rabbinic leadership.

While the Synagogue and its close-knit, devoted followers tenaciously remain downtown, on the East End of St. Thomas, the growing popularity of Chabad Lubavitch presents a different perspective.

Rabbi Asher Federman and his wife Henya arrived on-island in 2005. Emphasizing Orthodox tradition, their goal is to provide a wide variety of educational, religious and social services.

Utilizing inventive camerawork, Steve Rockstein Investigates this diversity, examining – among other things – the sanctity of touch, as Henya observes: “Every handshake has the potential to become potent.”

“There is much more that unites us than divides us,” concludes Reform Rabbi Bradd Boxman, urging the two congregations to work together.

While Rockstein duly acknowledges how the two devastating 2017 hurricanes have challenged island living, his powerful Epilogue divulges this astutely observational filmmaker’s journey back to Judaism, 49 years after being targeted by a Jewish pedophile.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sand on the Floor” is an enlightening 8, lifting the spirit and nurturing the soul.

08

SAND on the FLOOR a film by Steve Rockstein PREVIEW from Steve Rockstein on Vimeo.

“Fifty Shades Freed”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fifty Shades Freed” (Universal Pictures)

fifty-shades-freed-poster

The final episode of this inexplicably successful, soft-core porn franchise opens with billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) dazzling his bride, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson),with an ostentatious display of his staggering wealth: his jet, his yacht, his chef, etc.

“This is yours?” she gasps. “No, ours,” he smoothly replies.

Yet their gilded honeymoon in Paris and the Cote d’Azur is marred by a relic that Anastasia brings to their union – namely, her desire to continue working in book publishing.

“You can’t keep me in a cage,” she tells her domineering husband.

Integral to that is the threat posed by Ana’s former boss, smarmy Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), who lost his job and is out for revenge – along with Ana’s ire at Christian’s architect (Arielle Kebbel) – initiating fist fights, car chases and kidnapping.

Plus, Ana’s desire to get pregnant clashes with Christian’s selfish wish to keep her affectionate attention totally for himself. Just think of the dilemma of trying to keep a curious toddler away from the ‘forbidden’ Red Room with its handcuffs, whips, chains, butt plugs and nipple clamps!

While the predictable plot plods on, cue a strange nocturnal interlude when Ana and Christian, sleepless in Seattle, meander into the kitchen and devour each other, along with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Based on the pulpy, S&M novels by British author E.L .James (a.k.a. Erika Mitchell), this installment is again adapted by her husband Niall Leonard and directed by James Foley, who propels the protagonists through glossy musical montages to an improbable happily-ever-after.

Fortunately, there are no plans to film James’ fourth novel which tells the same flimsy fairy tale from Christian Grey’s perspective.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fifty Shades Freed” is a tiresome 2, particularly ill-timed with the focus on female empowerment in #MeToo and #Time’sUp.

02

“12 Strong”

Susan Granger’s review of “12 Strong” (Warner Bros.)

12

This contemporary war picture celebrates the brave soldiers who fought against Al Qaeda -without probing too deeply into the political justification or disillusioning aftermath of their heroic efforts.

Green Beret Operational Detachment Alpha 595 consists of a 12-member U.S. Special Forces squad sent into mountainous northern Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. Their mission is to take the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif within three weeks – before the winter snow hits.

Led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena), they’re informed that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.”

Accompanied by tribal warriors under Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) – who later became Afghanistan’s Vice-President – they ride on horseback across 40 miles of Taliban-controlled territory, liberating small villages along the way and calling in B-52 airstrikes when necessary.

The evasive military tactics and calculated maneuvers are made clear – with New Mexico’s terrain subbing for the harsh landscape of Afghanistan.

The only philosophical insight into the on-going struggle occurs when the American contingent, known as Task Force Dagger, is bluntly told: “You will be cowards if you leave and you will be enemies if you stay.”

Based on Doug Stanton’s based-on-real-events book “Horse Soldiers” (2009), it’s generically and somewhat redundantly adapted by Ted Tally & Peter Craig and directed with mucho machismo as a debut feature by Nicolai Fuglsig, a Danish photojournalist who served as a war correspondent in Kosovo.

FYI: Capt. Mitch Nelson is based on real-life Green Beret Mark Nutsch, and Chris Hemsworth’s real-life wife, Elsa Pataky, plays Nelson’s wife.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “12 Strong” is a ferocious 5, filled with fiery action, procedural frustration and inevitable anguish.

05