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“Appropriate”

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

 

Talk about timely! The plot points of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ dysfunctional family drama pivot on anti-Semitism and white supremacy, evoking Biblical themes.

When the Lafayette family gathers at their recently deceased father’s dilapidated Arkansas plantation house, memories are revived as shameful secrets are revealed by the discovery of a scrapbook containing explicitly horrifying photographs of lynching and mason jars containing pickled body parts.

Having dutifully cared for their father, the eldest sibling, embittered Toni (Betsy Aidem), expects the most from the upcoming Estate sale and auction; recently divorced, she’s had a rough year, and her troubled, slacker son Rhys (Nick Selting) is moving in with his father.

Her brother Bo (David Aaron Baker) and his Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis), arrive from New York with their children: rambunctious pre-teen Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and teenage daughter, Cassie (Allison Winn), who has a crush on her cousin Rhys.

The angst-riddled youngest brother Franz (Shawn Fagan), the prodigal son once known as Frank, appears unexpectedly with his sensible, New Age girl-friend, River (Anna Crivelli), insisting he wants to make amends for past misbehavior, including alcoholism, substance abuse and child-molestation.

Setting up the conflict, the first act is provocative and revelatory. But the second and third act meander, making it seem endless – and exhausting. They’re combined in this production by director David Kennedy and punctuated by the deafening, incessant chirp of cicadas; credit sound designer Fitz Patton.

After each family member indulges in a long, explanatory soliloquy, anger erupts and chaos reigns, epitomized by the rotting decay and eventual deconstruction of scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s cluttered set.

FYI: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won the 2014-15 Obie Award for this as Best New American Play.

Containing mature themes and crude language, “Appropriate” is at the Westport Country Playhouse until September 2. For more information, call the box-office at 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.

“Logan Lucky”

Susan Granger’s review of “Logan Lucky” (Bleecker Street/Fingerprint Releasing)

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Let’s face it: crime capers are fun – and this slick heist may be Steven Soderbergh’s best. It’s a blast!

After a leg injury sidelined him from a football career, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) traded his helmet for a hardhat. But now his limp means he can’t even hold a construction job.

Commiserating with his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver), whose forearm was blown off in Iraq, Jimmy comes up with an idea. They’re gonna rob North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway – with a bit of help from their hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter).

Jimmy’s worked underground at the Speedway and has inside information about the complex pneumatic tubing system that sluices cash from the souvenir and concession stands into the speedway’s vault. Seemingly dimwitted Jimmy is a man with a plan.

But he needs an explosives expert. Which is why he turns to infamous Joe Bang (scene-stealing Daniel Craig with an admirable Appalachian accent), who’s currently incarcerated in a nearby West Virginia prison. But Bang insists on including his Born Again hillbilly brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan/Dennis Quaid).

So, after a few setbacks, it’s time for the good ‘ol boys to launch their larcenous lark at NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day.

Don’t discount a sweet subplot involving Jimmy’s precocious daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) with ex-wife (Katie Holmes), who’s competing in a Little Miss West Virginia pageant. The opening scene involves Jimmy explaining to Sadie why he loves John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Less effective is another subplot detour involving a pompous, loudmouth British racer (Seth McFarlane). But casting Hilary Swank and Katherine Waterston in pivotal bit parts makes up for any shortcomings.

Working from a complicated, convoluted screenplay from an ‘unknown’ writer named Rebecca Blunt (a Soderbergh pseudonym?), inventive director/cinematographer/editor Steven Soderbergh excels in lighthearted, off-kilter comedy.

And concluding disclaimer notes, “Nobody was robbed during the making of this movie. Except you.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Logan Lucky” is an amusing, escapist 8: “Oceans 7-Eleven.”

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“Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature”

Susan Granger’s review of “Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” (Open Road)

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No better than the cartoons you can see on television, this animated sequel zeros in on squirrels Surly (voiced by Will Arnett) and Andie (voiced by Katherine Heigl), who are obviously destined for one another but face a number of obstacles on a circuitous road to romance.

Perpetually grumbling Surly and the rest of his gluttonous gang hang out in abandoned Nibbler’s Nut Shop near Liberty Park, gobbling artisanal, previously shelled morsels. Conscientious Andie is annoyed by their slothful behavior and relieved when an explosion destroys the dilapidated building.

But then Oakton City’s corrupt Mayor (voiced by Bobby Moynihan) announces plans to bulldoze their park, turning it into “Liberty Land,” an amusement center, avoiding safety compliance to maximize profits. We know he’s a bad guy because his car’s vanity license plate is MBEZZLIN.

Rising in protest, Surly, Andie and their cohorts are unexpectedly aided by white-furred Mr. Feng (voiced by Jackie Chan), who lives in Chinatown, having mysteriously evolved from a street rodent into a “weapon of mouse destruction.”

Plus, there’s Precious (voiced by Maya Rudolph), a scrappy, pop-eyed pug that frolics with Frankie (voiced by Bobby Cannavale), the Mayor’s daughter’s French bulldog who, after lapping up her regurgitated food, whines, “What are you, vegan? It’s go no taste!”

Scripted by director Cal Brunker with co-writers Bob Barlen and Scott Bindley, the anthropomorphic concept underlines the value of friendship and working together toward a common goal, amidst the chaos caused by a rolling Ferris Wheel-on-fire and a real mole playing Whack-a-Mole, noting, “The very existence of this game offends me!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” scurries in as a frenzied 4, a back-to-school time-waster.

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“Annabelle: Creation”

Susan Granger’s review of “Annabelle: Creation” (Warner Bros.)

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With paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren living in nearby Monroe, Connecticut audiences have always had a special place in their psyches for her and her late husband Ed’s collection of occult relics.

The real Annabelle, housed in a protective glass cabinet in the Warrens’ Museum, is a plain-looking, vintage Raggedy Ann-type doll, unlike the film’s garishly painted toy that’s fashioned in a child’s image.

After introducing demonic Annabelle in James Wan’s thriller “The Conjuring” (2013), she earned her own spinoff a year later. Now there’s an origin prequel.

It seems that 12 years after toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) lost their seven year-old daughter Annabelle in a tragic accident, they open their sprawling country house to Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of six girls from a local Catholic orphanage.

There’s Janice (Talitha Bateman), partially crippled from polio, and her plucky best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). Since the other girls are older, they share a communal bedroom, relegating Janice and Linda to bunk beds in the sewing room where Esther created doll costumes.

Although they’re forbidden to enter the locked bedroom that once belonged to the Mullins’ deceased daughter, that’s just where they go, opening a Victorian wardrobe containing a large, wooden doll wearing a white dress.

When that doll inexplicably appears in different places around the house. Janice is panicked although Sister Charlotte and the others aren’t yet convinced of the shadowy doll’s satanic connection.

Scripted by Gary Dauberman and directed by David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”), the creepy concept makes full use of production designer Jennifer Spence’s architectural layout for the dark farmhouse, photographed by Maxime Alexandre.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Annabelle: Creation” is a spooky, scary 6. If you want to delve deeper, the New England Society for Psychic Research is hosting “An Evening With Annabelle” on October 29, 2017, with Lorraine Warren in Monroe. Peril is priced at $169@ and all participants must sign a release form.

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“The Last Face”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Last Face” (Saban Films)

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Years ago, Robin Wright, who was married to Sean Penn, optioned this concept as a “passion project,” involving both Penn and Javier Bardem, but funding fell through. When Wright and Penn divorced, Penn obviously got custody, casting his then-fiancée, Charlize Theron, in the role Wright had wanted to play.

Born in South Africa, Theron might have been a superb choice, but Penn was so obviously besotted with her beauty that he rapturously photographs her like a glamorous fashion model, not an altruistic doctor.

That – among other elements – dilutes the veracity of this fragmented, savagely realistic depiction of war-ravaged people.

The melodramatic plot revolves around Dr. Wren Petersen (Theron), the uptight daughter of the famous humanitarian founder of Medecins du Monde, who meets roguish surgeon Miguel Leon (Bardem) at a Monrovian refugee camp. Sparks ignite!

“Before I met Miguel, I was an idea I had. I didn’t really exist,” she muses.

Years later, when Wren has become director of an international aid agency, their paths cross again in Sierra Leone, Liberia and South Sudan, where Wren reverts to her roots, joining Miguel and his blood-soaked cohorts (Jean Reno, Jared Harris), desperately trying to save lives amid barbarism.

In his first directorial duty since “Into the Wild” (2007), Penn, recognized as a human-rights activist in Haiti, relies on Erin Dignam’s shallow, preachy script, filled with whispered, often incoherent dialogue.

While a prologue proclaims the “impossible brutality” of the West African conflict, Penn’s focus is on the love between a man and a woman, as if the stench of death is some kind of an aphrodisiac.

There’s a resonant “Hurt Locker” moment when Wren muses about an “addiction to emergency,” which is not surprising since it’s chronicled by “Hurt Locker” cinematographer Barry Ackroyd.

But how does one deal with lines like – “You know that girl I was dancing with? She watched her sister get raped to death, and she was raped as well? “

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Last Face” is a gruesome, gravely disappointing 3 – Penn’s pompous indulgence.

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“The Glass Castle”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Glass Castle” (Lionsgate)

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Here’s a dysfunctional childhood recollection that makes the anti-Establishment patriarch “Captain Fantastic” (2016) look like a candidate for Father-of-the-Year. At least he never starved or tortured his children!

In Destin Daniel Cretton’s screen adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ 2005 best-selling memoir, Walls’ abusive, alcoholic father Rex is seen all-too-often through rose-colored glasses, or perhaps that’s Woody Harrelson’s colorful, manipulatively roguish interpretation.

Working as a Manhattan gossip columnist in the 1980s, riding in a taxi after a posh restaurant dinner with her financier fiancé (Max Greenfield), Jeanette Walls (Brie Larsen) spots her grubby, itinerant parents dumpster-diving on the Lower East Side. Which ignites a series of flashbacks.

Nomadic Rex and Rose Mary Walls were free spirits. An intelligent but self-destructive bohemian, Rex (Harrelson) was unable to hold a job or cope with authority, while self-centered Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) would rather paint than cook for her hungry kids. Which is why, as a three year-old, Jeannette suffered serious burns trying to boil hot dogs.

Living in extreme poverty in rural Welch, West Virginia, the Walls family eventually squatted in a shack without plumbing, heat or electricity, except when Rex hot-wired it from neighboring properties. To say the kids were neglected and malnourished is an understatement.

Instead of being resentful about her reprehensibly unconventional Appalachian upbringing, Jeanette Walls maintains that it made her and her three siblings resilient and self-reliant: “With a complicated childhood, you can either focus on the positive or the negative, and I chose to focus on the positive.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate cinematically. As depicted by Cretton (“Short Term 12”) and co-writer Andrew Lanham, the impoverished Walls kids had perfect teeth, wore clean clothes and didn’t get sick. They’re rarely seen suffering or struggling, which contradicts the grim truth of Walls’ candid autobiography, diluting its emotional potency.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Glass Castle” is a slick, sanitized 6, succumbing to sentimentality.

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“Menashe”

Susan Granger’s review of “Menashe” (A24)

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Set in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood, this is the story of a Jewish widower (Menashe Lustig) who has lost custody of his beloved 10 year-old son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski).

According to strict Hasidic custom, the youngster cannot be raised by a single parent. He must live with a father AND mother, so Menache’s married, financially secure, judgmental brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), has become Rieven’s condescending guardian.

Rebellious Menashe is a portly, disheveled klutz who refuses to wear the traditional long, black coat and hat and carelessly fails to provide proper meals for Rieven when the boy does visit. He’s the epitome of the luckless “schlimazel.”

Although the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) encourages him to re-marry to provide an appropriate home in which to raise Rieven, Menashe doesn’t want a new wife. All he wants is his precious son.

Working in a small, kosher convenience store, Menashe’s earnings are meagre, meaning he will be hard-pressed to host a proper reception in his tiny apartment after the Memorial for his late wife Leah, who died a year ago.  But that’s something he’s determined to do.

Loosely based on actual events in Menashe Lustif’s life, documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein, working with co-writers Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, has fashioned a gentle, unconventional character study, offering an intimate glimpse into the cultural mores and manners of the Hassidim, punctuated by a subtly melancholy, even haunting musical score.

Already recognized as a Yiddish comedian on YouTube, this is Menashe Lustig’s first foray into drama – and he’s a natural, evoking memories of Ernest Borgnine in “Marty.” Indeed, all of the actors, except one, are practicing Hasidic Jews.

And if ultra-Orthodoxy sounds intriguing, watch “Fill the Void,” “The Wedding Plan,” “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” and “The Women’s Balcony.”

Mostly in Yidddish, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Menashe” is a sensitive 7, offering sympathetic insight into a self-segregated community.

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“Detroit”

Susan Granger’s review of “Detroit” (Annapurna Pictures)

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In this scathing docudrama, Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of “The Hurt Locker’ and “Zero Dark Thirty,” depicts the civil unrest that rocked Detroit in the volatile summer of 1967.

It begins on the night of July 23 with a violent police raid on “The Blind Pig,” an unlicensed bar and African-American social club located on the second floor of a printing company, inciting what came to be known as the 12th Street Riot.

A mob forms when the partygoers, celebrating the return of two Vietnam War veterans, are herded into paddy wagons. At first, bottles are thrown, then bricks, as the mood of the crowd quickly escalates into looting and arson, punctuated by shouts: “Burn it down!”

That leads to a visceral confrontation at the seedy Algiers Motel, where seven black men and two white women are brutally humiliated, graphically tortured and abused by police officers, resulting in the deaths of three innocent youths.

Working from an unflinching script by her longtime collaborator Mark Boal and in-your-face cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Bigelow tells the agonizing, provocative story from various, often conflicting perspectives.

There’s Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), an overtly racist police officer, seemingly based on 24 year-old David Senak, who was exonerated and placed back on duty after he shot and killed an unarmed looter during the riots, and Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is a factory worker moonlighting as a security guard.

Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) and Larry Reed (Algee Smith) are members of an R&B group called The Dramatics. Robert Greene (Antony Mackie) is an unemployed veteran. Julie Ann Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever) are teenage hitchhikers from Columbus, Ohio.

Plus Aubrey Pollard (Nathan David Jr.) and Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), who fires a toy starter pistol out the window which alerts the Michigan State Police and National Guard, who think he’s a sniper.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Detroit” is a sordid, sadistic 6, filled with so much excessive violence that it induces revulsion, emerging as exploitative, racial torture pornography.

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“Valerian”

Susan Granger’s review of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (STX Films)

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From Luc Besson, the visionary French director of “Lucy” and “The Fifth Element,” comes this $200 million sci-fi fantasy, consisting of an episodic series of missions originating on Alpha, a space station in the Magellan Current that keeps expanding, adding new entities, becoming an intergalactic, multicultural hub.

Inspired by a series of ‘60s French comic books by Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin, the story focuses 28th century space adventurers, cocky Major Valerian (Dane De Haan) and sassy Sergeant Laureline (British fashion model Cara Delevingne). They’re military-trained operatives and long-time partners, traveling on a spacecraft called Alex, reporting to the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock).

After the near-eradication of a peaceful, iridescent beach species called Pearl People, they embark on a mission that takes them to The Big Market, an extra-dimensional tourist bazaar on the planet Kirian, where they retrieve a rare creature, a Mul Converter, the last of its species, that can make copies of whatever it ingests, from a Jabba the Hutt-type black marketer, Igon Sirus (voiced by John Goodman).

Another involves flamboyant Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke), who has enslaved an exotic, shape-shifting “glamapod” named Bubble (Rihanna) in Paradise Alley. There’s sinister, megalomaniacal military Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) and the Doghan Daguis, a CGI trio of furry, fast-talking platypus-like critters who broker information.

Insofar as plot goes, it’s all very confusing.  If you’re determined to see this, just to sit back and enjoy the dizzying visual spectacle that Besson created with Weta Digital effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk and production designer Hugues Tissandier.

Rutger Hauer does a cameo as the President of the World State Federation, while French directors Benoit Jacquot, Louis Letterier and Olivier Megaton can be glimpsed as military officers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a fast-paced, incomprehensibly futuristic 4, an epic indulgence.

04

“Kidnap”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kidnap” (Aviron Pictures)

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Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) is devoted to her six year-old son Frankie (Sage Correa). A single mother, she works as a waitress in a New Orleans-area diner and spends all of her free time with her boy.

While Frankie’s playing at a nearby amusement park, Karla steps away to take an important phone call from her attorney; apparently, her ex-husband is suing for sole custody. When she looks up, Frankie’s gone.

Frantically searching, she spies a woman shoving Frankie into a teal-colored Mustang GT and driving off. Running after the kidnapper, distraught Karla drops her cell phone in the parking lot.

Climbing into her red Chrysler minivan, she takes off in pursuit. “As long as my son is in that car, I will not stop,” she vows. “Wherever you go, I will be right behind you.”

Making good on her word, Karla recklessly weaves in and out of traffic on Louisiana’s highways and back roads, leaving not only wrecked cars in her wake but also critically injured bystanders, including a motorcycle policeman. Collateral damage.

When she stops briefly at a local sheriff’s office, the officer at the desk calmly picks up the telephone and tells her to wait. Looking at a bulletin board filled with photos of missing children, Karla realizes she hasn’t a moment to spare and darts back to her battered vehicle.

Eventually, Karla discovers that there are two abductors, Terry and Margo Vicky (Chris McGinn, Lew Temple). They’re a crazy, confrontational backwoods couple who are operating a child trafficking ring out of an old farmhouse near a swamp on a dead-end road.

Working from Knate Lee’s pulpy, simplistic script that often defies logic, Spanish director Luis Prieto (“Pusher”) amps the suspense, keeping the tension taut, as Karla vows, “You messed with the wrong mother!”

FYI: According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 800,000 children are abducted in the United States each year; that’s roughly 2,000 a day!

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kidnap” is a frenetic 5, a high-octane chase thriller.

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