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“Stronger”

Susan Granger’s review of “Stronger” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

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This is the inspiring, true story of 28 year-old Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs in the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Hard-drinking Bauman, who worked in Costco’s deli department, wasn’t running that April day. He was a spectator, waiting at the finish line for his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), a hospital administrator, who was running for charity. They’d broken up and he was hoping they’d get back together.

Unfortunately, he just happened to be standing right next to where one of the terrorists had planted a pressure-cooker bomb. It blew off both his legs at the knee. Both Bauman and his cowboy-hat wearing rescuer, Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), became the symbols of “Boston Strong,” thrust into the spotlight by the media.

On hearing that her son was a double-amputee, Bauman’s overprotective mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), with whom he still lived in Chelmsford, was devastated, turning to cigarettes and booze. Meanwhile, his father (Clancy Brown), uncle (Lenny Clarke) and the rest of his working-class family yell, curse and trade insults with one another.

Although Bauman vowed to do whatever it takes to walk again, during the ensuing months of agonizing rehabilitation, he was forced to deal with seemingly insurmountable mental and physical hurdles, many thrust on him because he’d become famous.

“I’m a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?”

At a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup game, when Erin pushes him out onto the ice in his wheelchair to wave the American flag, the ensuing noise and chaos give him a panic attack.

Based on the memoir by Jeff Bauman and Brett Witter, it’s scripted by John Pollono and directed by David Gordon Green, who focus on relationships and, predictably, conclude with footage of the real Jeff and Erin.

Although Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a memorable performance, it’s too bad that a disabled actor wasn’t given the chance. Years ago, William Wyler cast Harold Russell, who lost his hands in a training accident during W.W.II, as a veteran in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

FYI: This is the second film about the Boston Marathon bombings, following Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day,” focusing on the manhunt for the culprits.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Stronger” is a steadfast 7, revealing the kind of faith it takes to survive this kind of ordeal.

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“Desperate Measures”

Susan Granger’s review of “Desperate Measures” (York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church)

 

Set on America’s Western prairie in 1890 and inspired by Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” this world-premiere production of an imaginatively spirited new musical begins on a dire note.

Hot-tempered cowboy Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) is incarcerated at the End-of-the-Trail Jail, ready to be hanged for killing a man in self-defense in a bar fight. After conversing with sympathetic Sheriff Green (Peter Saide), Johnny realizes that only hope rests on his demure sister Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), a novice nun at the nearby Our Lady of the Tumbleweeds Mission.

If sweet Susanna can persuade smarmy Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) to spare his life, perhaps Johnny can marry the woman he loves, voluptuous saloon stripper Bella Rose (Lauren Molina). But the lecherous Governor will only grant Susanna’s request if she agrees to surrender her chastity to him.

That unexpected complication leads to Shakespeare’s oft-used “bed trick,” in which a gullible clod is duped into thinking he’s bedding one woman, only to discover it’s another, followed by a bride-switch, presided over by a perpetually inebriated, Nietzsche-quoting priest (Gary Marachek).

Working from Peter Kellogg’s slyly conceived book and lyrics – that cleverly utilize contemporary language in iambic-pentameter – set to David Friedman’s catchy, cheerful, country music, director/choreographer Bill Castellino keeps the comedy clipping along at a fast pace.

Darting about James Morgan’s barn-siding set, the six-member ensemble is enchanting and their singing soars, one melody after another. Kudos also to Nicole Wee’s period costumes, Paul Miller’s lighting, and Julian Evans’ sound design. David Hancock Turner’s backstage band combines guitar, banjo, mandolin, double bass and piano music.

If you’re looking for fresh, exuberant fun, head over to the York Theatre on Lexington Avenue for this rollicking romp!

 

Sex with Strangers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sex with Strangers” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

There’s a pervasive sadness that dominates Laura Eason’s timely observations in her contemporary dramedy about how a serious novelist and a sex-obsessed blogger cope with ambition and passion in the internet age of social media.

At a tiny bed-and-breakfast in rural Michigan, Olivia (Jessica Love), a gifted but discouraged novelist in her late 30s, meets Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), a brash, 28 year-old blogger who arrives unexpectedly late one evening during a snowstorm.

To his chagrin, he quickly discovers that there’s no phone service or Wi-Fi, wailing, “I can’t get online? People will think I’m dead!”

Although Olivia knows nothing about him, he’s read her ill-fated first novel and is eager to see her latest manuscript, although she now describes herself as a “hobbyist,” admitting she’d rather die in obscurity than subject herself to “anonymous strangers staying horrible, misspelled things about my work.”

Flattered after he heaps effusive praise on her talent, she’s besotted by his confident, rakish charm. Soon they’re impetuously locked in a torrid embrace. The next day, her natural reticence is once again overcome by his exuberant male energy.

As it turns out, Ethan is an erotica star, chronicling his casual sexual conquests in a blog: Sex With Strangers. Using his internet connections, he introduces Olivia to his agent, helping her get published once again. But complications arise, revolving around printed books versus e-books and the inevitability of jealousy when she achieves more literary respect than he ever will.

Curiously, love never enters the equation, since she – quite rightly – distrusts him from the getgo. They never establish an intimate friendship, let alone a viable relationship, which inevitably leads to loneliness. Torrid lust between the dust-jackets turns out to be an anti-romantic comedy.

Astutely directed by Katherine M. Carter, both Jessica Love and Chris Ghaffari deliver creditable performances, aided by Edward T. Morris’ spacious set, Caitlin Cisek’s authentic costumes, Alan Edwards’ evocative lighting, and Beth Lake’s sound design.

Since its premiere in 2011 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, “Sex with Strangers” has been produced more than 50 times with companies in New York, London, Sydney, and Buenos Aires. And playwright Laura Eason is perhaps best known as a writer on TV’s “House of Cards.”

“Sex with Strangers” runs through Oct. 14 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org.

 

“Battle of the Sexes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Battle of the Sexes” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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This sports drama serves up the story behind the famed 1973 exhibition tennis match between 29 year-old Billie Jean King and 55 year-old Bobby Riggs, who bragged he could beat any woman player in the world.

As reigning Wimbledon champion two years running, King (Emma Stone) was in her prime, while brash, gambling-addicted Riggs (Steve Carell) was Wimbledon’s champion back in 1939.

So with great fanfare on September 30, King was carried, like Cleopatra on a chaise, into the Houston Astrodome by bare-chested guys, while Riggs, wearing a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket, arrived by rickshaw. At the net, King handed Riggs a squirming piglet, confirming his male chauvinist status.

Squaring off for the $100,000 prize, it was a milestone for the women’s liberation movement. At that time under the aegis of condescending Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), women on the tournament circuit earned far less than men. So King was determined to get respect and equal pay for female players.

Meanwhile, off the court, Billie Jean was experiencing a different dilemma: her sexual awakening. Although married to supportive Larry King (Austin Stowell), she was attracted to hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  While facing a palimony suit in 1981, King became the first famous athlete to come out as a lesbian.

Fresh from her Oscar-winning “La La Land,” Emma Stone added 15 pounds of muscle to her slim frame, nailing King’s competitive style, aided by her athletic stunt-double, NCAA’s Kaitlyn Christian. Supported by Steve Carell, who captures Riggs’ desperation, they’re a winning match.

Working from Simon Beaufoy’s subtle screenplay, husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) cleverly capture the tenor of the time, utilizing actual footage of Howard Cosell’s insidiously sexist commentary and offering glimpses of fashion designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) and ‘World Tennis’ magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).

FYI: According to Forbes, Emma Stone is now the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Battle of the Sexes” aces an empowering 8, focusing on the social change that swept the country during the last quarter of the 20th century.

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“The Lego Ninjago Movie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lego Ninjago Movie” (Warner Bros.)

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Bookended by two live-action sequences featuring Jackie Chan as the Chinatown curio store narrator, this animated feature delves once again into the world of plastic toys.

Indeed, it’s almost a duplicate of “The Lego Movie” (2014), redundantly utilizing a wise guru and a sought-after Ultimate Weapon that turns out to be common household object.

In the Asian island city of Ninjago, there’s this average high school student, Lloyd (Dave Franco), whose absentee father is wicked, ego-maniacal Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), making Lloyd an outcast and giving him obvious Daddy issues.

Riffing on the Luke Skywalker “Star Wars” mythology, it revives the combative good son/evil father concept – with Lloyd’s overprotective mother KoKo (Olivia Munn) serving as the voice of reason.

Meanwhile, martial arts Master Wu (Jackie Chan) has been training a color-coded, elemental Ninja team to battle pompous, four-armed Warlord Garmadon, who happens to be his brother. And Lloyd, as the Green Dragon Ninja, secretly trains with them.

There’s the Red Fire Ninja Kai (Michael Pena), the Blue Lightning Ninja Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), the Black Water Ninja Nya (Abbi Jacobson), the half-human/half-robot White Ice Ninja Zane (Zach Woods), and the Black Earth Ninja Cole (Fred Armisen). They’re Power Ranger-like warriors.

Eventually, the Ninjas must team up with Lord Garmadon to save their metropolis from annihilation by “Meowthra,” a giant house cat.

Utilizing a script filled with pop-culture puns and gags that have been cobbled together by a veritable gang of screenwriters, directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan rely on Animal Logic animation – with original directors/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller now taking producer credits.

FYI: Ninjago is pronounced two different ways. When referring to the fictional city, it’s nin-JAH-go. But when it’s used as a battle cry, it sounds like, “Go, Ninja, Go!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lego Ninjago Movie” is a frenetic 5, familiar family fare that becomes another brick-building commercial.

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“Friend Request”

Susan Granger’s review of “Friend Request” (Entertainment Studios/Global Media)

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Like “Unfriended,” Simon Verhoeven taps into social media to propel this tech-terror thriller which starts out with a provocative premise before it inevitably dissolves into clichéd carnage.

College student Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is undoubtedly one of the most popular coeds on campus. Since she has more than 800 ‘friends,’ she graciously accepts a ‘friend’ request from lonely Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers), a strange, hoodie-clad, Goth-like classmate.

But then Marina becomes obsessed with Laura, who lies to her about a birthday party. That tips troubled Marina over the edge, causing Laura to ‘unfriend’ her. In retaliation, Marina posts a video in which she’s seen committing suicide by hanging herself and setting herself on fire.

In an accompanying message, Marina vows that Laura will soon understand what real loneliness is. And that’s just the beginning of the torment Marina directs toward Laura. Cyberstalking reigns, as horrific videos suddenly begin appearing under Laura’s name.

Unable to delete the videos and cancel her demonic on-line account, Laura takes desperate measures, enlisting the services of a hacker, Kobe (Connor Paolo), when her real-life friends start being ceremonially killed by grisly, gruesome, supernatural methods, particularly CGI wasps.

“That’s not code,” Kobe declares, examining the mystical videos of their deaths. “I think it’s a ritual.”

Or, as the tagline proclaims, “Evil is trending.”

Co-writing the screenplay with Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch, German director Simon Verhoeven is the son of director Michael Verhoeven and actress Senta Berger. He is not related to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Friend Request” is a formulaically trashy, throwaway 3, filled with far too many jump scares.

03

“Literally, Right Before Aaron”

Susan Granger’s review of “Literally, Right Before Aaron” (Screen Media Films)

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Writer/director/editor/composer Ryan Eggold relates the strange, agonizing story of lovelorn, thirtysomething Adam (Justin Long), who gets a call from his ex-girlfriend Allison (Cobie Smulders), telling him that she’s getting married and inviting him to her upcoming wedding.

Against the advice of his best friend Mark (John Cho), hapless Adam decides to pack up his VW Beetle and drive back home to San Francisco to attend the nuptials, hoping to convince himself and everyone else, including her fiancé Aaron (Ryan Hansen), that he’s truly happy for her.

As one embarrassment after another humiliates Adam, Mark echoes the viewer’s sentiment by plaintively asking, “What are you thinking? Why are you doing this?”

Whiny Adam is an aspiring nature-documentary filmmaker who is being browbeaten by his employer, egocentric Orson Schwartzman (Peter Gallagher), host of TV’s “Nature Calls…”

But he isn’t able to embark on his future until he emotionally discards the idyllic concept of fairy-tale love that has kept him enmeshed with Allison, his college sweetheart.

And when other well-wishers ask why he’s there, someone says, “Adam and Allison used to go out,” and another adds, “Literally, right before Aaron.” Hence the title.

According to Ryan Eggold’s Director’s Statement, this an “anti-romantic” comedy, relating an unconventional story, juxtaposing the incongruity between how we expect things to turn out and how they actually do.

Actor Justin Long duly embodies masochistic Adam, while Cobie Smulders (TVs “How I Met Your Mother”) is enchanting as Allison. They’re supported by a steadfast roster that includes Dana Delany, Luis Guzman, Kristen Schaal and Lea Thompson – experienced thespians whose considerable talents are wasted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Literally, Right After Aaron” is pathetic 4, revolving around a petulant jerk.

04

“Brad’s Status”

Susan Granger’s review of “Brad’s Status” (Amazon Studios)

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Writer/director Mike White tackles a particularly privileged mid-life crisis as a neurotic father takes his talented 17 year-old son on a New England college tour.

Although he lives in a beautiful suburban home in Sacramento, California, with his loving, supportive wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), angst-riddled Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) never stops whining and complaining.

An idealist, he’s opted to work in the non-profit sector, which means he’s earned considerably less money than his Tufts University classmates.

There’s former White House press secretary-turned-author Craig (Michael Sheen), wealthy hedge-fund manager Jason (Luke Wilson), retired-in-Maui tech guru Billy (Jermaine Clement) and Hollywood director Nick (Mike White) whose $9 million mansion is on the cover of Architectural Digest.

“For them, the world isn’t a battlefield, it’s a playground,” Brad muses.

Now Brad’s off to visit East Coast colleges with his son Troy (Austin Abrams), a musical prodigy who has a good chance of being accepted at Harvard. Or, at least he would have, if he’d not messed up the date for his Admissions interview.

Determined to rectify the scheduling snafu, Brad tries calling his influential college classmates from whom he has felt estranged.

While he’s utterly convincing, Ben Stiller has played similar malcontent roles before – in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “While We’re Young” and, more recently, “The Meyerowitz Stories.”  But his totally self-absorbed Brad Sloan seems somewhat smarmy, given today’s ‘real world’ problems.

Eventually, Brad gets his comeuppance from Troy’s flautist friend Ananya (Shazi Raja) but not before this middle-aged creep imagines running off with bikini-clad Ananya and another nubile undergrad.

Filmmaker Mike White indulges in seemingly endless fantasies and inner monologues, overly narrated by Ben Stiller. But it’s difficult to evoke sympathy for this resentful materialist. The more we know about him, the less we like him.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Brad’s Status” is a sardonic 6, stuffed with deceptive sentimentality and self-pity.
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“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (20th Century-Fox)

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Following his deliriously astonishing “Kingsman” (2015), Matthew Vaughn’s cynical, R-rated sequel continues the stylized spoof of James Bond spy stories.

With her retro-50s headquarters hidden deep in Cambodian rainforest ruins, the megalomaniacal villain is Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), the world’s most successful – and demented – drug dealer, who manages to destroy most of the Kingsman knights along with their bespoke tailor shop on Savile Row.

That leaves only Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), the cheeky former London street kid-turned-superspy who is in love with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), daughter of Sweden’s King and Queen (Bjorn Granath, Lena Endre), whom he rescued in the first film’s climax.

Eggsy and gadget-wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) venture across the pond to Kentucky to find American spy allies at Statesman bourbon brewery, run by Champagne – “Call me Champ” – (Jeff Bridges), whose cowboy team includes Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and tech-whiz Ginger Ale (Halle Berry).

Meanwhile, Poppy has implanted a mysterious virus to infect and, eventually, kill every drug user in the world. She intends to blackmail the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) to bargain for the antidote. But her plan backfires when he opts to double-cross her – to the chagrin of his chief-of-staff (Emily Watson).

Meanwhile, having miraculously survived being shot in the eye, suave Harry Hart (Colin Firth) – whose Kingsman code name is “Galahad” – is suffering from “retrograde amnesia.” Locked in a padded cell, he believes he’s a lepidopterist (a butterfly collector).

And there’s an extended pop cameo by Elton John, being held captive as Poppy’s piano-playing prisoner.

Based on comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, it’s sloppily scripted by director Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who rely far too much on crudely explicit sex gags, maniacal action and exaggerated CGI, lacking the essential element of surprise which made the original such a success.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is a sassy, satirical 6, as the flippant, fun-filled, fantasy franchise continues.

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“Rebel in the Rye”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rebel in the Rye” (IFC Films)

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Since J.D. Salinger repeatedly refused to allow a movie to be made of “The Catcher in the Rye,” filmmaker Danny Strong decided to dramatize the story of how and why this literary classic was written.

Adapting Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, Strong (co-creator of the TV series “Empire”) asserts not only that Holden Caulfield was Salinger’s alter ego but also that Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, was Sally Hayes.

When he was 22, Jerome David Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) fell madly in love with then-16 year-old Oona (Zoey Deutch). Flanked by socialites Gloria Vanderbilt and Carol Marcus (who married William Saroyan), Oona played coy with many suitors, including Orson Welles and cartoonist Peter Arno; in 1942, she was dubbed Debutante of the Year.

But Salinger persisted and, when he went off to fight in W.W. II, Oona promised to wait for him. So when he read in the newspaper that she’d married 53 year-old Charlie Chaplin, he was devastated.

Dispatched to Europe just in time for D-Day, Salinger was permanently scarred by the brutality that he witnessed on the front lines, suffering what we now know as PTSD. Nevertheless, encouraged by his agent (Sarah Paulson), he kept working on his 1951 novel about poignant adolescent angst.

Translated into 30 languages, it has sold 65 million copies and continues to sell 250,000 copies a year!

From childhood, Salinger felt tortured. Encouraged by his mother (Hope Davis) but thwarted by his critical father (Victor Garber), he studied creative writing at Columbia under Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), editor of “Story” magazine, who became his mentor, insisting that Holden Caulfield was worthy of his own novel.

Salinger later published “Franny and Zooey,” “Nine Stories” and other minor works. Married three times, he eventually chose a reclusive life of Zen Buddhism and meditation, isolated in the Cornish, New Hampshire woods until his death in 2010.

Despite Strong’s best efforts, the essence of J.D. Salinger remains elusive.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rebel in the Rye” is a feeble 5, cheesy and implausible.

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