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“ClownTown”

Susan Granger’s review of “ClownTown” (ITN)

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Extreme fear of clowns is so prevalent that there’s a word for it: “Coulrophobia.”

That could be reason enough to avoid Tom Nagel’s cheapo horror film that revolves around a group of friends who get stranded in a seemingly abandoned town, only to discover that they’re being stalked by vicious psychopaths dressed as circus clowns.

Allegedly inspired by true events, Jeff Miller’s screenplay begins with a pretty young babysitter removing her halter, baring her breasts and being knifed in the belly. That’s within the first five minutes.

Skip ahead 15 years to Stanley’s Diner, somewhere in southern Ohio.

Jill (Katie Keen) and Mike (Andrew Staton) are double-dating with Sarah (Lauren Compton) and Brad (Brian Nagel). They’re headed for a country music concert in Columbus and, when they ask for directions, they’re told by the local sheriff that there’s a shortcut but warned not to stop in any of the local towns.

Predictably, they get lost. Then Jill realizes she left her cellphone back on the counter in the diner.

When a Good Samaritan calls to say he found it, they arrange to meet in Clinton, a town that was devastated years earlier by a horrific train crash. That’s where they join up with two construction workers, Billy (Tom Nagel) and Dylan (Jeff Denton), as the axe-swinging slaughter begins.

Jill gets kidnapped, tied up and ghoulishly tortured, while her terrified cohorts listen to the sordid history of ClownTown, related by a crazy old coot named Frank (Greg Violand).

It seems there’s a psychotic reason behind the violence, culminating in the explanation: “A mother always has to protect her son, no matter what.”

According to legend, clowns have long been associated with nefarious deeds, including murder, infidelity, pedophilia and financial ruin. But they deserve better than this senseless scream-fest.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “ClownTown” is a trashy 2, several steps beyond creepy.

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“The Birds”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Birds” (59E59 – Theater C: 2016-2017 season)

 

Movie-goers may remember that Alfred Hitchcock used Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novella as inspiration for his terrifying 1963 tension-filled classic, starring Tippi Hedren.

Originally produced at Dublin’s Gala Theatre in 2009, Conor McPherson (“The Weir,” “Shining City,” “The Night Alive”) has adapted the concept into a futuristic, apocalyptic world in which marauding flocks of birds have achieved domination over Earth’s creatures.

Amid sounds of beating wings and rasping caws, three survivors seek shelter in an abandoned New England farmhouse with no electricity and little food.

Arriving with a flashlight, Diane (Antoinette La Vecchia) is a novelist who chronicles the avian onslaught in her diary/journal. She’s joined by Nat (Tony Naumovski), who is afflicted by crippling headaches and psychiatrically unstable.

They take in younger, injured Julia (Mia Hutchinson Shaw), who quotes from Ecclesiastes, seduces Nat, becomes pregnant, making a bizarre appearance at the conclusion as a birdlike creature carrying an egg.

There are numerous revelations and confrontations, few of which are particularly insightful or interesting. Which is doubly disappointing because Conor McPherson has previously proven himself capable of revelation and suspense.

The script is completely devoid of humor and the full-frontal male nudity is totally gratuitous.

In the tiny, cramped black-box space of Theater C, it seems that no audience members have an uncompromised view of the stage. So people either twist in their seats or stand up to try to glean what’s happening from moment-to-moment since, obviously, no one has scrutinized the sight-lines.

So it’s difficult to discern why Resident Birdland director Stefan Dzeparoski, set designer Konstantin Roth and video designer David J. Palmer made these peculiar staging choices – that result in 90 minutes of almost complete frustration – with no intermission in which to flee.

In a (mercifully) limited engagement, “The Birds” runs through Sunday, Oct. 2, at 59E59 Theaters.

 

 

“I.T.”

Susan Granger’s review of “I.T.” (RLJ Entertainment/Fastnet Films)

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As an aerospace industrialist trying to save his company with Omni, a new Uber-like app that enables private jet owners to hire out and make more efficient use of their aircraft, Pierce Brosnan propels this trivial techno-thriller.

He’s Mike Regan and, despite his sophistication and lofty perch in the business world, he’s a technophobe who needs the help of his wife Rose (Anna Friel) just to operate the coffee maker in his kitchen.

So when a Power Point presentation to investors suddenly fails, his all-important Omni demonstration is saved by a nerdy IT temp, Ed Porter (James Frecheville).

Grateful, Mike suggests that Ed should come to his home to fix the Wi-Fi. The complicated surveillance systems with their omnipresent cameras in his ultra-modern “smart house” are awesome – yet awful when they go awry.

“I like my privacy,” Mike explains, offering Ed a drink.

“Privacy’s dead,” Ed counters, adding, “Privacy isn’t a right. It’s a privilege.”

While exploring the premises, Ed eyeballs Mike’s pretty 17 year-old daughter Kaitlyn (Stefanie Scott), which proves to be an unwelcome intrusion, crossing the unspoken employer/employee social boundaries.

Not surprisingly, Ed’s a creepy psychopath. His shady NSA background enables him to quickly acquire all the codes he needs to terrorize the gullible Regan family, particularly when he surreptitiously photographs Kaitlyn masturbating in the shower, sending the video viral.

“You’re not the master of the universe, Mike,” Ed sneers, sadistically menacing all Mike holds dear.

Scripted by Dan Kay and William Wisher and directed by John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines”), the sinister cyber-stalker story is plodding and all too predictable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “I.T.” is a formulaic 4. It’s best to disconnect.

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“The Birth of a Nation”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Birth of a Nation” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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I’m incredibly conflicted about this film. Writer/director/actor Nate Parker has created a searing, powerful Civil War drama, revolving around an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

Set on cotton plantations in Southampton County, Virginia, it reveals that, as a child, Nat (Tony Espinosa) was recognized by an African tribal shaman as a potential prophet/leader. And he’s encouraged to read the Bible by his master’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller).

Years later, Nat (Nate Parker) becomes a Baptist preacher. Amid rumors of insurrection, he’s rented out by his alcoholic owner (Armie Hammer), travelling to neighboring plantations to spread his gospel of subservience and peace.

That’s before brutal acts of traumatic violence turn soulful Nat into a mythic crusader, experiencing intense religious visions and viewing a solar eclipse as a sign from God to lead a ferociously bloody uprising that claimed 60 white families and led to the slaughter of 200 blacks in retaliation.

Filled with heavy-handed symbolism, it’s, nevertheless, thoughtful and perceptive. But how do you separate the artist from his work?

Nate Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of raping an unconscious 18 year-old woman at Penn State. At their 2001 trial, Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty but appealed the verdict; a second trial was thrown out when the victim refused to testify again. She committed suicide in 2012.

Taking top honors at Sundance, selling for $17.5 million (the biggest in the festival’s history), “Birth” appeared to be the kind of African/American film about racism, faith and injustice that would appeal to Academy voters determined to acknowledge diversity. But will it now? It’s a moral dilemma.

FYI: Parker’s brutal portrayal of slavery depicts the rape of two women (Aja Naomi King & Gabrielle Union). And the title is the same as D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 silent film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Birth of a Nation” is an edgy, effective 8, yet tainted by the filmmakers’ shadow of shame.

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“The Magnificent Seven”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Magnificent Seven” (Sony Pictures)

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Impressed by Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic “Seven Samurai” (1954), director John Sturges adapted the idea into “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Horst Buchholtz and Brad Dexter protect a small village from Mexican banditos, led by charismatic Eli Wallach.

Now, Antoine Fuqua (“The Equalizer,” “Training Day”) saddles up seven gunslingers, hired by a spunky, vengeful widow, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), to save a ransacked mining town from Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a rich, rapacious industrialist.

Set in 1879, as the frontier outpost of Rose Creek is besieged, a prologue quickly establishes how ruthless and evil the villain is before introducing the heroic, multi-racial protagonists.

Bounty-hunter Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) recruits Josh Faraday (Chris Platt), a roguish, hard-drinking Irish gambler (Chris Pratt); Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a twitchy Confederate sharp-shooter; Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a Korean knife-expert; Vasquez (Manuel Garcia Rulfo), a Mexican outlaw; Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a cantankerous tracker; and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a renegade Comanche warrior.

Unevenly scripted by Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenk (“The Equalizer”), it’s filled with archetypal characters yet lacks nuanced exposition. But genre aficionados will note that there is a Gatling gun nod to Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.”

So it’s left to capable Denzel Washington to propel the camaraderie, which is does with extraordinary capability, particularly when they’re preparing the terrified townsfolk – aptly characterized as “farmers, not fighters” – for Bogue’s inevitable invasion with an army of mercenaries.

The chaotic action is graphic, but Fuqua diligently maintains a PG-13 rating, hoping to attract mainstream multiplex audiences yearning for a Western.

While James Horner’s score is evocative, it’s only near the conclusion that he utilizes Elmer Bernstein’s iconic, instantly recognizable, unforgettably haunting music.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Magnificent Seven” is a shoot-em-up 6, supplying a spectacular barrage of bullets.

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“Storks”

Susan Granger’s review of “Storks” (Warner Bros. Animation Group)

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For many years, when children asked where babies came from, parents answered: “The stork delivered them.”

But times change and, as the bundle-of-joy business became less profitable, hard-working storks began delivering packages from Cornerstone.com, an Amazon-like on-line retailer.

Plus, there was a hushed-up scandal about Jasper (voiced by Danny Trejo), a stork who, long ago, became so attached to a baby girl he was supposed to transport that he kept her for himself.

That’s why now-18 year-old Tulip (voiced by Katie Crown) grew up as the only human on Stork Mountain. Over the years, while yearning to find her intended family, she’s become Cornerstone’s clumsiest, most accident-prone employee.

The boss, Hunter (voiced by Kelsey Grammer), wants to get rid of her before he retires, dispatching amiable, ambitious Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg) to do it.

Meanwhile, down in suburbia, lonely Nate Gardner (voiced by Anton Starkman) yearns for companionship since his parents (voiced by Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell) are work-obsessed realtors. So he writes a letter to the baby-makers on Stork Mountain, begging for a baby brother who has ninja skills.

When Tulip gets his letter, she inadvertently re-activates the assembly line of the long-dormant infant factory, resulting in an adorably diapered dumpling, which she and Junior are determined to deliver.

The encounter plenty of obstacles, including Hunter’s tattling henchman, Pidgeon Toady (voiced by Stephen Kramer Glickman), and a ravenous pack of shape-shifting wolves, led by Alpha (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and Beta (voiced by Jordan Peele).

Scripted by Nicholas Stoller (“Neighbors,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and directed by Stoller and Pixar animator Doug Sweetland, it’s really a perceptive commentary on the changing aspects of family, emphasizing the wryly comedic aspects of parenting. Much of which goes over the heads of a kiddie audience.

While the animation by Sony Pictures Imageworks is vivid, particularly the big-eyed babies, it’s not particularly inspired or inventive.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Storks” is a funny, frenetically-paced 5, stressing nurturing and compassion.

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“Deepwater Horizon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Deepwater Horizon” (Summit/Lionsgate)

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When an explosion on April 10, 2010, ignited the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the blowout lasted 87 days, leaking 4.9 million gallons into the Gulf, resulting in the worst ecological disaster in American history.

Told through the perspective of Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), it begins normally, as he bids goodbye to his wife (Kate Hudson) and young daughter, hoping to snag a ‘dinosaur bone’ for her to show to her class in school.

Preparing to be transported to the enormous rig, just off the Louisiana coast, he greets co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and reports for duty to Captain “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell), who, ironically, is presented with a workplace Safety Award, just before the “well from hell” bursts.

Conversing in terse, completely indecipherable, technical jargon, it becomes obvious that certain “negative pressure tests,” along with other complicated maintenance procedures, were not properly performed because of monetary pressure.

According to the crew, the rig is held together “with Band-Aids and bubble gum.”

Since the drilling rig is owned by Transocean and leased to British Petroleum (BP), company exec Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) is concerned that the project is already behind schedule to start pumping oil.

“We’re confident about the integrity of the cement,” Vidrine says, but it’s obvious that pressure is building deep below and a monumental catastrophe is lurking.

Taking cues from Irwin Allen disaster movies like “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974), screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, along with director Peter Berg, take time to introduce the motivations of their primary characters.

After the accident occurs, chaos ensues. Enrique Chediak’s handheld cinematography blends convincingly with Craig Hammack’s visual effects, while Wylie Statemen’s deafening noise obliterates everything. There are numerous explosions, fireballs, gushing oil, oozing mud and collapsing metal towers.

Eventually, it becomes obvious that Williams’ rugged heroics saves several lives, yet 11 men died and what happened to the rest is anyone’s guess.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Deepwater Horizon” is a suspenseful 7 with edge-of-your-seat tension.

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“Bridget Jones’s Baby”

Susan Granger’s review of “Bridget Jones’s Baby” (Universal Studios)

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The long-awaited third installment begins as charmingly awkward, accident-prone Bridget (Renee Zellweger) is celebrating her 43rd birthday – alone, once again – with Celine Dion’s “All By Myself.”

A funeral flashback reveals that Bridget’s caddish boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), has died and her longtime lover, successful barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), is married to a woman named Camilla.

Bridget is a successful TV news show producer and her best-friend, anchorwoman Miranda (Sarah Solemani), has concocted a plan to launch her back into the dating world during a weekend at the Glastonbury Music Festival.

That’s where American billionaire Jack Quant (Patrick Dempsey) gallantly pulls her out of a mud puddle. He’s CEO of an online dating website. Later that night, he and Bridget hook up in his ornate yurt.

A week later, at a christening, Bridget discovers that Mark Darcy is getting a divorce, and their nostalgic chemistry re-ignites.

As a result of these two romantic encounters, Bridget’s pregnant. But who’s the father? Since Bridget’s terrified of having amniocentesis, not even her obstetrician (Emma Thompson) knows, cynically quipping, “It doesn’t matter. All they’re good for is fitting car seats and blaming things on.”

Both suitors are surprisingly acquiescent to claiming parenthood. Indeed, they soon become competitive. And when her water breaks, both men rush her to the hospital, defying a traffic jam by carrying her cross-town through the streets of London.

Filled with characters adapted from her own best-selling novel, the script by author Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson, again directed by Sharon Maguire, reflects a changing cultural climate, particularly about gender equality. As a result, while still insecure, Bridget is less body image-obsessed.

The same can be said for Renee Zellweger, who took a six-year break from acting, living on a 40-acre farm in Connecticut. Middle-aged Bridget’s gamely grappling with feeling increasing irrelevant in a workplace populated by people decades younger obviously touched a chord within Zellweger.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” delivers an endearing 8, a sparky screwball comedy worth waiting for.

08

 

“Snowden”

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

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Timed to coincide with the release of Oliver Stone’s new docudrama, the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International launched an initiative to get him a Presidential Pardon from Barack Obama.

So is whistleblower Edward Snowden a 21st century hero or traitor?

Director Stone (“The Walk,” “World Trade Center”) believes that knowing the backstory of the contractor who leaked classified documents about the National Security Agency’s enormous invasions of privacy will influence your opinion.

If you’ve seen Laura Poitras’ incisive, Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour,” you’re familiar with much of Snowden’s tale. Stone’s begins in 2013, when Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets with Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in a Hong Kong hotel room.

Geeky Snowden presents them with guarded information he’d smuggled out of his NSA office in Hawaii that documented the government’s massive surveillance program, encompassing not only American citizens but overseas contacts.

Working with screenwriter Kiernan Fitzgerald from books by Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherena, Oliver Stone utilizes flashbacks to show how idealistic Snowden, who came from a military family, enlisted in Special Forces training and was discharged after suffering broken legs.

Patriotic, he went into Intelligence work, displaying such remarkable skill as a computer analyst to his CIA boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), that he got increasingly higher NCA security clearances – which led to Snowden’s disillusioned, almost-messianic determination for disclosure.

In order to humanize Snowden, Stone shows how he solves a Rubik’s cube one-handed and dwells on his strained relationship with his liberal girlfriend, photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

In the epilogue, the real Edward Snowden, now in exile in Moscow, states: “When I left Hawaii, I lost everything. I had a stable life, stable love, family, future. I lost that life but I’ve gained a new one, and I am incredibly fortunate. And I think the greatest freedom I’ve gained is that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Snowden” is a slick, sycophantic 6, glossing over the U.S. government’s deplorable actions and the unintended consequences of Snowden’s disclosures.

06

 

“The Eagle Huntress”

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

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For 12 generations, the men of Nurgaiv’s family have been masters of the art of eagle hunting, a Kazakh falconry tradition in Western Mongolia that goes back some 2,000 years – to before Genghis Khan.

Now, shy, soft-spoken 13 year-old Aisholpan is determined to become the first female in her family included in this ancient father/son ritual.

Since an eagle can have only one master, first Aisholpan must capture hers. That involves scrambling down a sheer rock cliff, secured by a rope, to seize a three month-old golden eaglet from the nest as her mother circles overhead.

This young female eagle will live, train and hunt with Aisholpan for seven years – until she releases it into the wild, so nature’s cycle of life can continue.

After months of enthusiastic training with her supportive father Agalai, rosy-cheeked Aisholpan enters the annual Golden Eagle Festival, a renowned rivalry, competing against 70 of the greatest Kazakh eagle hunters.

Not surprisingly, the chauvinistic tribal elders are firmly opposed, noting societal constraints like “Women get cold” and “Women belong in the kitchen.”

Then courageous Aishopan faces her greatest challenge, an exhausting rite-of-passage, riding on horseback into the frigid Altai Mountains with her father, enduring 40-below-zero temperatures and waist-high snow drifts, to kill a fox with her eagle, proving she is, indeed, a real huntress

Executive produced and narrated by Daisy Ridley (Rey in “Star Wars”), it’s a unique coming-of-age tale, as exuberant Aisholpan proves that a young woman’s dreams can come true.

Astutely directed by Otto Bell, sharply edited by Takal, and sublimely photographed by Simon Niblett, it offers an intriguing glimpse into nomadic family life in a yurt (even one with solar panels) and features decorative costumes, sewn by Aishopan’s mother, Alma Dalaykan.

The end credits song, “Angel by the Wings,” by Australian pop artist Sia, assures YA audiences “You can do anything!”

In Kazakh with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Eagle Huntress” is a stunning, soaring 7, a heroic adventure.

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