“Equity”

Susan Granger’s review of “Equity” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Set on Wall Street, Meera Menon’s financial thriller proves that female executives can be just as cold-hearted, cut-throat and corrupt as the male majority who surround them.

“I like money – like knowing I have it,” declares hot-shot investment banker Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn, familiar as Skylar White on “Breaking Bad”). “I’m so glad we can sit here, as women, and talk about ambition…Money doesn’t have to be a dirty word.”

Fortyish Naomi has once again been told, “This is not your year,” as she’s passed over for a global position by her boss (Lee Tergesen) at Remson Partners on the basis of one underperforming IPO in her otherwise impressive Silicon Valley start-ups portfolio.

Determined to prove her worth, workaholic Naomi goes after another IPO called Cachet, a San Francisco-based, billion-dollar social network/security business, run by a British tech entrepreneur (Samuel Roukin).

Problem is: Naomi’s equally ruthless, hedge-funder boyfriend, Michael Connor (James Purefoy), steals her info about the upcoming IPO, so he can do some insider trading.

Meanwhile, Naomi’s ambitious protégé, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), is trying to conceal the fact that she’s newly pregnant. And Naomi’s manipulative college chum, Samantha (Alysia Reiner), is now working for the Justice Department, investigating white-collar crimes, like securities fraud.

On the lighter side, the most memorable scene reveals Naomi going ballistic when a male underling gives her a cookie with fewer chocolate chips than the one he just ate!

When Broad Street Pictures founders/producers Alysia Reiner and Megan Thomas launched this first female-driven Wall Street drama, they made sure they had a female screenwriter (Amy Fox “Heights”), female director (Meera Menon “Farah Goes Bang”) and strong female cast.

Much of their relatively modest budget came from 25 female investors, including former and current Wall Streeters, who shared their astute observations and experiences in the male-dominated workforce…making the backstory more interesting than the movie itself.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Equity” is a perceptively scrappy 6, but the corporate intrigue lacks a satisfying payoff.

06

“Suicide Squad”

Susan Granger’s review of “Suicide Squad” (Warner Bros.)

 

How many superhero comic book movies does it take to make you yawn with boredom?

If you haven’t reached your saturation point, this could push you over the edge as superheroes are replaced by super-villains.

After “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) decides to recruit inmates – “the worst of the worst” – from a maximum-security facility, Belle Reve Penitentiary in Louisiana, to undertake covert missions to win their freedom.

Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is their handler, along with samurai swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara). In order to keep them under control, their necks are implanted with deadly nanite bombs, courtesy of Wayne Enterprises.

There’s nihilistic Floyd Layton (Will Smith), known as Deadshot for his accuracy as a marksman, rugged Boomerang (Jai Courtney), reptilian swamp/sewer-dweller Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), rope master Slipknot (Adam Beach) and fiery ascetic El Diablo (Jay Hernandez).

Plus, the cackling, tatted Joker (Jared Leto) with his manipulative former psychiatrist/girl-friend, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).

While June Moon, a witchy archeologist known as Enchantress (Cara Delavigne), briefly occupies their attention, Midway City faces a catastrophic threat from a mystical enemy.

Based on John Ostrander’s rather obscure DC comic book, it’s adapted by director David Ayer (“Fury”), who sneaks in a couple of continuity cameos from the Caped Crusader (Ben Affleck).

Cast as the Clown Prince of Crime, Jared Leto’s sociopathic Joker follows in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. Unfortunately, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner for “Dallas Buyer’s Club” can’t quite measure up to his predecessors.

The most memorable performance comes from this year’s IT girl, Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Legend of Tarzan”), and the PG-13 rating is far too lenient, considering the foul language and violence.

Ahead in the pipeline, DC movies include “Wonder Woman,” “Justice League,” “Aquaman” and another Batman movie, directed by Ben Affleck.

Meanwhile, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Suicide Squad” is a fiendish 5 – with a predictable, sequel-teasing concluding scene.

05

 

“Jason Bourne”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jason Bourne” (Universal Pictures)

 

A refresher: Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a rogue CIA agent.  Once recruited to Operation Treadstone, part of the U.S. Intelligence Network, he’s suffered from amnesia while exposing numerous covert conspiracies.

At the conclusion of “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), Bourne says he remembers everything. His real name is David Webb, and he’s guilt-ridden about what he did as the government’s pre-programmed killing machine.

After years of anonymity, remorsefully engaging in bare-knuckle boxing near the Greece-Macedonia border, brawny Bourne is once again lured into the open, determined to “learn the truth” about his deceased dad (Gregg Henry), who was also involved with the Agency.

In Athens, Bourne was tipped off by his ex-CIA contact, tech whiz Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who filched future black-ops plans, including a strategy code-named Iron Hand, infuriating the new Director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), who suspects that her public exposure of top secrets “could be worse than (Edward) Snowden.”

Ambitious CIA analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) is slyly confident that she can bring Bourne in, while Dewey’s hired assassin, known as the Asset (Vincent Cassel), wants him dead, tracking him from Berlin to London to Las Vegas – for personal as well as professional reasons.

Adding to the intrigue is Silicon Valley tycoon, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), who duplicitously assures his 1.5 billion users that his Deep Dream social media platform will not tolerate government surveillance, noting, “You don’t need to tell me we live in scary times. I’m Muslim.”

Based on Robert Ludlum’s literary concept, the timely script by longtime “Bourne” editor Christopher Rouse and experienced ”Bourne” director Paul Greengrass sacrifices emotionally engaging character development in favor of visceral, kinetic action.

As a result, there several set-pieces, filled with convoluted foot-and car-chases, notable for Barry Aykroyd’s jittery camerawork, deafening sound, and superb stunt-work. Plus, there’s a spectacular finale in Sin City, whose casino-studded skyline is dominated by a Trump sign.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jason Bourne” is a frenzied 5. It’s a familiar franchise that could, perhaps, benefit from some lower-octane fuel.

05

 

“Florence Foster Jenkins”

Susan Granger’s review of “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Paramount Pictures)

The 1940s was a kinder, gentler era – a time when a generous, good-hearted, if delusional diva packed Manhattan’s famed Carnegie Hall and people cheered as she enthusiastically sang off-key.

Socialite heiress Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) truly believed she was a gifted opera singer. The coloratura soprano she heard in her head was sublime; the reality that her excruciating voice quavered never deterred her in the slightest.

Employing Metropolitan Opera conductor Carlo Edwards (David Haig) as her vocal coach, she endowed New York’s Verdi Club, where adoring audiences encouraged her screeching.

If she could not achieve acclaim, she could buy it – with the help of her dedicated husband/manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and loyal, long-suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).

“Music matters: it is my life,” declares Jenkins, who contracted syphilis from her first husband on their wedding night, necessitating celibacy in her subsequent marriage to Bayfield, a failed Shakespearean actor.

But, in 1944, when Madame Florence insisted on giving a public concert, distributing 1,000 free tickets to U.S. servicemen, Bayfield realized that her illusions would inevitably be shattered.

Wearing a fat suit, bedecked with pearls, feathers and gossamer angel wings, Meryl Streep transcends grotesquerie, eliciting empathy by embodying often-imperious, yet emotionally fragile Florence with sensitive respect and heartbreaking understanding.

Energetically at her side, Hugh Grant embodies indulgent devotion within their complicated marital ‘arrangement’ which discreetly includes his own Brooklyn apartment and mistress (Rebecca Ferguson).

Along with their outstanding ensemble, screenwriter Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears rely on production designer Alan McDonald and costumer Consolata Boyle for period authenticity.

After warbling in “Ricky and the Flash,” “Mamma Mia!” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” it’s not surprising that Meryl Streep does her own singing; it takes true artistry to sound that awful.

(French filmmaker Xavier Giannoli recently fictionalized a similar story, “Marguerite,” set in the 1920s.)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a tragi-comic, sentimental 7, a poignant celebration of indulged eccentricity and pursuing your dreams.

07

“Our Little Sister”

Susan Granger’s review of “Our Little Sister” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Based on Akimi Yoshida’s popular graphic novel “Umimachi Diary,” Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows,” “I Wish,” “Like Father, Like Son”) has created a wistful, episodic melodrama about families.

When the three twentysomething Koda sisters – Sachi, Yoshino and Chika – travel north to Yamagata for the funeral of their estranged father, they discover that they have a teenage half-sister (Suzu Hirose) from his second marriage.

Impulsively, Sachi invites shy, soccer-loving Suzu to come live with them in their late grandmother’s dilapidated family house in Kamakura, a small, seaside town, south of Tokyo.

Ever since their mother (Shinobu Ohtake) deserted them, dutiful Sachi has been the matriarch; a dedicated nurse, she’s having an affair with a married pediatrician at the local hospital.

The middle sister, Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), is a hard-partying bank clerk, while kooky, amiable Chika (Kaho) works in a sporting-goods store, flirting with a mountaineering co-worker who lost six toes climbing Mt. Everest.

In addition to the sisters’ romantic angst, there are many culinary interludes, including catching and preparing freshly-caught seafood, along with the multi-generational ritual of making plum wine using fruit harvested from an old tree in their yard.

As seasons pass over the course of a year, the kind and generous sisters bond, relating to each other in different ways, coping with a cantankerous great-aunt, marveling at a fireworks display and relishing the traditional pink cherry blossoms.

As this gradual intertwining occurs, it affectionately reinforces their grandmother’s oft-quoted belief that “every living thing takes time and effort.”

In Japanese with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Our Little Sister” is a slight, serene, sweet 6; it’s a subtle, calming interlude.

06

“Nerve”

Susan Granger’s review of “Nerve” (Lionsgate)

 

Playing on the ubiquitous prevalence of the Pokemon Go phenomenon, along with the popularity of horror films, the directing team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”) came up with this teen-oriented cyber-thriller.

On New York’s Staten Island, Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) is a timid high-school senior living with her over-protective, single mother (Juliette Lewis). Knowing Vee’s desire for enough money to go California Institute for the Arts, her BFF Sydney (Emily Meade) introduces her to Nerve, a (fictional) live-stream smartphone game of dares.

This is the way it works: you download an app, then choose whether to be a Player or a Watcher. As voyeurs, Watchers suggest dares and there are cash prizes awarded to Players who participate. The riskier the dare, the more Watchers a Player get – and the bigger the payout.

It’s on-line gaming with a contrived, reality-show twist.

Naïve Vee’s first dare (as shown in the theatrical trailer) is to kiss a total stranger in public. Her chosen guy turns out to be Ian (Dave Franco). Since they immediately attract attention as a cute couple, Vee is paired up with Ian, and he happens to be a Player who’s up for some daredevil challenges in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Vee’s computer hacker buddy Tommy (Miles Heizer) and increasingly jealous Sydney are observing from the sidelines with growing apprehension as danger lurks in the increasingly perilous stunts – like riding a motorcycle while blindfolded.

Adapted by jargon-savvy Jessica Sharzer (“American Horror Story”) from Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 YA novel of the same name, it’s filled with adrenaline-charged stunts, adroitly chronicled by cinematographer Michael Simmonds.

It’s a shame that 25 year-old Roberts and 31 year-old Franco appear much too mature to pass as teens – and that the late-in-coming caution about the seductiveness of Internet anonymity gets lost.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nerve” is a socially conscious 6, appealing to media-obsessed Millennials who may not heed the warning and just find the sinister surveillance idea exciting.

06

“Bad Moms”

Susan Granger’s review of “Bad Moms” (STX Entertainment/Block Entertainment)

 

Believing that you’re the absolute center of your child’s universe can lead to helicopter parenting – and being a smothering mother causes incredible stress.

Just ask exhausted 32 year-old Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis). Living in suburban Chicago with a man-child husband (David Walton) and two spoiled preteens (Oona Lawrence, Emjay Anthony), she’s juggling the demands of family and working with millennials at a hip coffee company.

When she catches her husband having cyber-sex with a naked woman, she orders him out of the house. And as if she wasn’t frazzled enough, Amy’s being systematically terrorized by fascistic PTA president Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her malicious minions (Jada Pinkett Smith, Annie Mumolo).

Monitoring the upcoming Bake Sale, Gwendolyn cautions against using essential ingredients like butter, sugar, eggs and nuts, threatening police action for any infraction of her dietary rules.

Desperate, Amy dives into a bar, where she’s joined by two other burnt-out moms: slovenly, outspoken divorcee Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell), the beleaguered, meek-and-mousy mother-of-four.

“We’re killing ourselves to be perfect and it’s making us insane,” Amy wails. Determined to be “bad moms,” they defiantly trash a super-market to Icona Pop’s “I Love It.”

The next day, Amy stops hovering over her kids’ homework, refuses to make them breakfast and claims the keys to her husband’s vintage, red muscle car.

Boozy brunches with Carla and Kiki lead to an invigorating encounter with Jesse (Jay Hernandez), a hunky widower whose daughter attends the same school.

From the creators of “The Hangover” trilogy, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, comes this rude, raunchy, R-rated comedy, aimed at upper middle-class moms.

The highlight is a crude sequence in which Carla uses Kiki’s hoodie to demonstrate how to handle an uncircumcised penis – that must be seen to be believed. And crucial to the closing credits are unexpected cameos of the actresses and their real-life mothers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bad Moms” is a surprisingly satiric 6. Its intrinsic feminism is a lot funnier than either “Absolutely Fabulous” or “Ghostbusters.”

06

“Cafe Society”

Susan Granger’s review of “Café Society” (Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)

“The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble…” but Wood Allen continues to churn out one movie each year. From classic Manhattan comedies (“Annie Hall”) to memorable character studies (“Blue Jasmine”) to stylish crime-capers (“Match Point”), that’s something moviegoers can count on.

Set in the 1930s, this is a bittersweet coming-of-age tale, as eager, earnest Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) moves from the Bronx to Hollywood, where he goes to work for his pretentious Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a name-dropping, big-time talent agent.

Not surprisingly, Bobby immediately falls in love with Phil’s pretty secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who drives him to see movie stars’ mansions in Beverly Hills.

“Menial errands are my specialty,” Bobby guilelessly explains, “but I don’t see a great future in it.”

Trying not to be intoxicated by the shallow glitz and schmoozing gossip, he, nevertheless, marvels, “I’ve never mixed Champagne with bagels and lox.”

Narrated by Woody Allen, romantic complications abound, so brokenhearted Bobby returns to his working-class Jewish family in New York, where he goes into the nightclub business with his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stahl), marries a blonde socialite, also named Veronica (Blake Lively), and they have a baby.

Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) comes as close to channeling Woody Allen’s neurotic nebbish as anyone ever has on-screen. He propels the plot, as his character’s romantic dreams mature into sophisticated melancholia, while Kristen Stewart is convincingly caught between two men who adore her.

FYI: when Bruce Willis dropped out, Steve Carrell stepped in. And the superb supporting ensemble (Parker Posey, Ken Stott, Anna Camp, Jeannie Berlin and Paul Schneider) turns what could be caricatures into relatable characters.

Aided by production designer Santo Loquasto, Italian cinematographer Vittorio Stororo evokes the nostalgic glamour of Tinsel-Town’s Golden Age and the excitement of Manhattan’s swanky, Depression-Era cabaret scene, known as “the wrong place for the right people.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Café Society” is a vintage, wistful 7 – with a jazzy soundtrack worth savoring.

07

“A Man Like You”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Man Like You” (IATI Theater-Off-Broadway, July, 2016)

 

Inspired by the real Somali terrorist attack at the Westgate Shopping Mall on September 21, 2013, Kenyan-born playwright Silvia Cassini envisions a conversation between a British hostage, diplomat Patrick North (Matthew Stannah), and his radicalized Al Shabaab captor Abdi (Jeffrey Marc) in a windowless concrete room in Somalia.

Meanwhile, North’s wife Elizabeth (Jenny Boote) provides a monologue counter-point from their home in Nairobi, relating plans for diplomacy that will lead to his negotiated rescue by the military.

During North’s 102 days of imprisonment, they discuss different practical and political points-of-view: who is a really terrorist and who is a martyr, what is good and what is evil, and the nature of a deity called God.

Abdi tells North he’s been targeted as a pawn and his life is no more than “a bargaining chip,” while Abdi’s cohort/enforcer Hassan (Andrew Clarke) ominously holds an AK-47.

Staged by director Yudelka Heyer, it’s a talky interrogation and, as such, more intellectually provocative than emotionally engaging. Yet it does present a psychological insight, along with a rarely-discussed rationale for these terrorist attacks.

As voiced by Abdi, his rationale is reminiscent of the Somali pirate played by Barkhad Abdi who commandeered Tom Hanks’ cargo ship in the movie “Captain Phillips.”

“A Man Like You” premiered in Nairobi earlier this year and has been imported to the New York theater scene by RED Soil, an African/Caribbean-inspired theater/film company, founded by Matthew Stannah (Nairobi, Kenya) and Yudelka Heyer (Dominican Republic). RED Soil’s purpose is to showcase new, innovative work that brings about new waves to share vivid stories, often untold, in which struggle and pain are depicted.

“A Man Like You” runs from July 13 to July 31 at the IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street. For tickets, visit BrownPaperTickets.com, call 800-838-3006 or ticket directly at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2554996

“The Invisible Hand”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Invisible Hand” (Westport Country Playhouse: July, 2016)

 

During the summer’s heat, Artistic Director Mark Lamos took a gamble – challenging audiences to think about the geopolitical roots of Islamic terrorism – and I suspect it will pay off handsomely.

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s riveting thriller begins as Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), a Citibank executive, sits, handcuffed, in a jail cell in Pakistan. He was abducted by mistake by Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), a militant Muslim who really intended to capture his boss.

Bright knows he has to convince his captors to keep him alive, so he’s already advised his guard Dar (Jameal Ali) to stockpile potatoes until the price goes up, then sell them, making a sizeable profit, particularly when he exchanges rupees for dollars.

The terrorists’ leader, Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), is demanding a $10 million ransom, which Nick knows won’t be paid. Instead, Nick proposes to use the $3 million he’s stashed in a Cayman Islands account to earn a reduced ransom through strategic futures trading – with Bashir handling the intricate maneuvers on a laptop.

“Making money is intoxicating,” Nick warns, as Bashir’s greed grows.

“Everyone’s self-interest works to check everyone else’s,” Nick explains, referring to the “Invisible Hand” title, a term coined by economist Adam Smith in his 1776 book, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.”

As a Muslim-American and Pakistani-American, playwright Ayad Akhtar utilizes each of the four characters to delineate various practical and political points-of-view. As a result, the result is more intellectually provocative than emotionally engaging.

While director David Kennedy adroitly stages this talky, yet timely, confrontational exchange of ideas, the drama is ominously punctuated by far too many disconcerting blackouts and the roar of U.S. drones hovering outside.

Its authenticity is augmented by Adam Rigg’s simple set design, Matthew Richards’ lighting, Fitz Patton’s sound, and Emily Rebholz’s costumes.

In support of this production, which runs until Aug. 6, the Playhouse is hosting a series of free, community engagement speakers and discussions. For a schedule and more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at 203-227-4177.