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“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.

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“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.”

 

 

“Amelie: A New Musical”

Susan Granger’s review of “Amelie: A New Musical” (Walter Kerr Theater)

 

“Amelie: A New Musical” is absolutely awful! Let me count the ways…

Based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical 2001 French film, starring Audrey Tatou, it’s about a young woman, Amelie Poulain, with a soaring imagination who feels compelled to do good deeds, confounding those around her.

“I can see the world I’m dreaming all around me,” sings Young Amelie (Savvy Crawford), raised in isolation by a coldly distant doctor father (Manoel Felciano), who suspects she has a heart condition, and an unloving mother (Alison Cimmmet), who’s killed by a suicidal man jumping from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral.

When she grows up, Amelie (Phillipa Soo) works in a Parisian café, surrounded by Montmartre eccentrics – plus Amelie’s nosy neighbor, Dufayel (Tony Sheldon), a fragile, elderly artist who repeatedly copies Renoir paintings.

Quirky Amelie is voyeuristically obsessed with the philanthropic nobility and tragic death of Princess Diana, which prompts a fantasy sequence as she’s serenaded by Elton John (Randy Blair).

Princess Di’s image prompts Amelie to do kind things- like returning lost ‘treasures’ and romantic match-making. Then there’s this sensitive fellow, Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), a Pigalle porn shop clerk who collects strips of discarded snapshots from Metro station photo booths. And let’s not forget Amelie’s father’s garden gnome, who hooks up with a curvaceous stewardess and becomes a world traveler.

Ineptly adapted by Craig Lucas with charmless, derivative music by Daniel Messe and inanely rhyming lyrics by Nathan Tysen, it’s awkwardly directed by Pam McKinnon, who drenches everything with a cloying, artificial cuteness, and frenetically choreographed by Sam Pinkleton.

Waifish Phillipa Soo, who originally played Eliza in “Hamilton,” has a lovely, lilting voice; too bad it’s wasted on this drivel.

As a friend once cautioned me about a dreadful show, “Don’t even walk by the theater because it might start to rain and you’d duck in for cover” – and be trapped for an hour and 40 minutes – without an intermission. Revered New York Times critic Walter Kerr must be spinning in his grave!

 

“T2: Trainspotting”

Susan Granger’s review of “T2: Trainspotting” (Columbia/Sony)

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Back in 1996, Scottish filmmaker Danny Boyle celebrated sneering, rebellious, drug-drenched youth in “Trainspotting.” In this sequel, Ewan McGregor and the Leith lads trip into middle-age.

Re-visiting the same characters 20 years later, it recalls how Mark Renton (McGregor) ripped off his friends in a lucrative drug deal. Apparently, he took the money and fled to Amsterdam, where he kicked his heroin habit and plunged into respectability, including a failed marriage.

When Renton returns to Edinburgh after his mother’s death, only the sniveling junkie, Spud (Ewen Bremner), who is estranged from his wife and child, welcomes him. Spud’s best scene is when he explains to a support group why he feels that the biggest obstacle to sobriety is daylight savings time.

Feigning friendship, Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) – a.k.a. Sick Boy – remains furious about Renton’s betrayal. Attempting to atone for his sins, Renton tries to help him and his Bulgarian prostitute partner, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), turn the decrepit family pub into an upscale brothel by scamming a small European Union development grant.

And the ill-tempered, impotent psychopath, Begbie (Robert Carlisle), has escaped from prison, determined to wreak revenge.

Scripted by Johnny Hodge and directed by Danny Boyle as a character study, it’s filled not only with striking images, inducing nostalgia, but also a contemporary commentary on urban gentrification, noting the uneasy rise of the populist movement that fueled Brexit.

Although they’d toyed unsuccessfully with Irvine Welsh’s 2002 follow-up book “Porno,” the idea of a reunion ignited in mid-2015, when Boyle bumped into Ewan McGregor in a London pub, where they began patching up a feud that began when Boyle cast Leonardo DiCaprio, instead of McGregor, in his big budget adaptation of “The Beach.”

“I decided enough is enough,” admits McGregor. “And I wanted to work with Danny again.”

Not to disappoint, Boyle revives Renton’s “choose life” speech, focusing the rant on the brutality of social media and the dispiriting economy.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “T2: Trainspotting” is a bitterly cynical 5, redundantly evoking regret and acceptance.

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“The Boss Baby”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boss Baby” (20th Century Fox/DreamWorks Animation)

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Somewhere in the clouds above, Baby Corp. runs an adorable newborn assembly line, where babies are manufactured and families formed.

That’s according to the overactive imagination of seven year-old Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi), who is totally content as the only child of doting parents (voiced by Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow) who read him endless bedtime stories and sing the Beatles’ tune “Blackbird” as his lullaby.

But then Tim’s perfect little world is disrupted by the arrival of a baby brother named Theodore. In Tim’s mind, the demanding infant is a tiny tyrant, dispatched by Management, arriving in a business suit, wearing a Rolex and carrying a briefcase. And he can talk.

Theodore manages to remain infantile by gulping a magic formula and sucking on a psychedelic pacifier. “One thing was clear,” now-grown Tim (voiced by Tobey Maguire) recalls. “He was the boss.”

When his cohorts arrive in the guise of a ‘play date,’ which is actually a business meeting, the titular tot explains that, since their parents both work at Puppy Co, they need to infiltrate the company to eliminate the inherent threat of its newest product: an adorable Forever Puppy that will never grow up.

Based on Marla Frazee’s charming 36-page picture book, it’s adapted by screenwriter Michael McCullers (“Austin Powers” sequels) and director Tom McGrath (“Madagascar” trilogy), delving into competitiveness and jealousy.

Oddly enough, its high-concept is aimed at grown-ups, not children, particularly casting Alec Baldwin whose distinctive voice evokes memories of “30 Rock” and his “Saturday Night Live” caricature of Donald Trump.

Among the many pop culture references, there’s a running gag about “Lord of the Rings” Wizard Gandalf, embodied in Tim’s Wizzie alarm clock, and the line “Cookies are for closers,” referencing Alec Baldwin’s seminal scene in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

FYI: Young Miles Christopher Bakshi is a grandson of pioneer “Fritz the Cat” animator Ralph Bakshi.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Boss Baby” is an intermittently funny 5, skewering sibling rivalry.

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“Going in Style”

Susan Granger’s review of “Going in Style” (Warner Bros./New Line Cinema/Roadshow Pictures)

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Bill Gates once said, “Banking is necessary, banks are not.” Which may be why bankers and banks have become popular cinematic villains.

Like the hapless brothers in last year’s “Hell or High Water,” three Brooklyn-based seniors suddenly realize that – because of a nefarious local bank – they’re going to be broke and homeless.

Joe (Michael Caine) comes up with the idea of an armed robbery after conferring with a sleazy Williamsburg Savings Bank manager (Josh Pais) about his adjustable mortgage that has suddenly tripled, threatening him, his divorced daughter and beloved granddaughter with foreclosure and eviction.

Joined by longtime friends Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Al (Alan Arkin), Joe then discovers that the Wechsler Steel Company, where they’ve all worked for years, has outsourced to Vietnam and their pensions will be confiscated by the same Williamsburg Savings Bank.

Retribution seems to be the only answer. What have they got to lose? Suffering from renal failure, Willie needs a kidney transplant, and cantankerous Al, a jazz saxophonist, is fed up with teaching music to talentless kids – like the son of a saucy grocery store clerk (Ann-Margret).

Viewing “Dog Day Afternoon” as a cautionary tale, the retirees decide to seek advice from a professional thief (John Ortiz). After several ‘trial runs,’ they work out a watertight alibi and disguise themselves in rubber masks depicting the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.), unaware that they’ve aroused the suspicions of an FBI agent (Matt Dillon).

Adapted by Theodore Melfi (“Hidden Figures,” “St. Vincent”) and directed by actor Zach Braff (“Garden State”), this crime caper is actually a remake of Martin Brest’s 1979 movie, starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg.

FYI: Ironically, President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was as an Executive Producer of this gibe at corporate greed.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Going in Style” is a salty 6, a mildly amusing, slapstick comedy that’s filled with scrappy banter.

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“The Assignment”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Assignment” (Lionsgate/Saban Films)

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In the pantheon of schlocky B-movies, Walter Hill’s psycho-sexual thriller scores on star-power alone.

This pulpy saga begins with a gratuitous, full-fontal nude scene involving a nasty hitman named Frank Kitchen, who is hiding out in a sleazy San Francisco hotel after a bumping off a San Francisco gangster named Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia).

Suddenly, Frank is confronted by thugs who deliver him to a megalomaniacal plastic surgeon, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), whose medical license has been revoked. Because Frank killed Rachel’s debt-riddled, playboy brother (Adrian Hough), she’s determined to wreak her own deviant kind of revenge.

When Frank (Michelle Rodriguez) awakens some time later, he discovers that he’s undergone a sex change. Without embarrassment, Frank examines his pert female breasts and is furious about the surgical removal of his penis. Which doesn’t seem to deter his blossoming relationship with flirtatious nurse (Caitlin Gerard) with whom he previously had a one-night stand.

When Dr. Kay is subsequently committed to a mental institution, a psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Green (Tony Shalhoub) is assigned to evaluate her sanity. Calm and confident, despite being confined in a straitjacket, she flaunts her Intellectual superiority, quoting Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe.

Collaborating with co-screenwriter Denis Hamill, veteran director Walter Hill (“The Warriors,” “48 Hours”) subversively taps into the provocative topics of plastic surgery and gender re-assignment, subjects he delved into back in 1989 with “Johnny Handsome.”

Several sequences conclude with a freeze frame, followed by what looks like a comic-book illustration, subtly alluding to the story’s recent publication as a graphic novel in France.

Admittedly bisexual Michelle Rodriguez (“Girlfight”) is never quite convincing as the raspy-voiced tough guy and she denied in a Huffington Post article that it’s her body in the nude scenes.

FYI: Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez previously co-starred in James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Assignment” is a titillating, trashy 3, an audacious excuse for a lurid killing spree.

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“The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Focus Features)

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As years go by, more and more poignant survival stories that have been buried in Holocaust history are surfacing.

This one begins on a beautiful day in 1939 at Poland’s Warsaw Zoo, where Antonia Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) is helping her husband Jan (Belgian actor Johan Heldenberg) tend the animals. That afternoon, she resuscitates a newborn elephant calf who cannot breathe – with its distraught mother’s at her side.

But then German aircraft appear overhead, and bombs reign down, killing many of the terrified beasts, while others escape to roam the city’s streets.

Led by Berlin’s chief zoologist, sinister Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Nazis commandeer the grounds, saving only “prize specimens” for selective breeding, savagely slaughtering the rest.

Meanwhile, within the city, the Jewish population is being herded into a ghetto, locked behind barbed wire to starve or, later, be loaded on boxcars and sent to concentration camps.

Appalled at the brutality, Antonia and Jan come up with defiant plan. Since the German soldiers love pork, they’ll turn the zoo into a pig farm, feeding the animals garbage from the ghetto.

While Antonia cares for their dwindling menagerie, Jan drives his truck into the ghetto, where he hides Jews in bins, covering them with refuse and smuggling them into his human sanctuary, where they hide until the Resistance forges papers and transports them to safety.

Since Lutz Heck often makes unexpected visits to the zoo, it’s up to Antonia to keep him distracted, as jealous Jan observes from a distance.

While Jessica Chastain (“Miss Sloane,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) radiates beatific compassion, Angela Workman’s perfunctory script is a flaccid, almost antiseptic adaption of Diane Ackerman’s haunting 2007 non-fiction book.

Sensitively helmed by New Zealand director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), the most memorable moments include Antonia’s empathy with a traumatized Jewish teenager (Shira Haas) who was raped by German soldiers – as the tension mounts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is nobly stoic 7, heralding one brave couple’s unobtrusive heroics.

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