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“Napoli, Brooklyn”

Susan Granger’s review of “Napoli, Brooklyn” (Long Wharf Theatre 2016/2017)

 

New Haven’s Shubert used to be the go-to place for theatrical try-outs. Now it’s the Long Wharf Theater, currently hosting the world premiere of Meghan Kennedy’s “Napoli, Brooklyn,” co-produced by Manhattan’s Roundabout Theatre Company.

Set in New York City during the 1960s, the domestic drama revolves around the Muscolino family: an Italian immigrant couple and their three American-born daughters.

The parents, Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) and Nic (Jason Kolotouros), are caught between their Sicilian culture and Old World values and the freedom of the New World, epitomized by Brooklyn.

As the play opens, their oldest daughter, Vita (Carolyn Braver), has been dispatched to a convent after brutish Nic savagely beat her when she tried to protect her youngest sister, feisty Francesca (Jordyn DiNatalie), who had the temerity to cut her long hair. And middle daughter Tina (Christina Pumariega) feels guilty for not stepping in to protect Francesca.

Then there’s the kindly, courteous, Irish butcher, Mr. Duffy (Graham Winton), with his adolescent daughter Connie (Ryann Shane), who bonds with her BFF Francesca. Plus gentle Celia (Shirine Babb), a black woman who befriends awkward Tina at a factory where they both work.

Playwright Meghan Kennedy drew from the recollections of her Italian-American mother who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. In the program notes, Kennedy alludes to how girls born to immigrants “had to fight so hard to find their voices, and even harder to keep them intact.”

Character development is what propels this immigrant experience, as each participant poignantly changes within the context of the play. As long-suffering Luda, Alyssa Bresnahan is outstanding, expressing her love for her family through her cooking, praying to an onion because God seems to be ignoring her entreaties.

Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the acting ensemble is superb, and Edelstein handles the episodic drama with finesse, working in conjunction with set designer Eugene Lee and lighting designer Ben Stanton to delineate the various locations.

“Napoli, Brooklyn” is at Long Wharf Theater through March 12 before moving to the Roundabout Theatre Company], where it will play from June 9 thru Sept. 3.

Call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

 

“I’ll East You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers”

Susan Granger’s review of “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers” (MTC in Norwalk)

 

To appreciate John Logan’s caustic comedy, you’ve got to know that Sue Mengers was the brassy barrier-breaker who became Hollywood’s first female super-agent, handling stars like Barbra Streisand, Ali MacGraw, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, Cher and Burt Reynolds, along with directors Mike Nichols, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Brian DePalma, Bob Fosse and Sidney Lumet.

Deceit and deception were a way of life in the shamelessly competitive jungle of studio politics, along with the inevitable feuding and fighting. Famed for her deliriously decadent, drug-fueled dinner parties, Sue Mengers loved movie stars; she called them “sparklies.”

Evoking her famed 1975 interview with Mike Wallace, Mengers relates how she was able to become what Time magazine described as a “cross between Mama Cass and Mack the Knife.” And the play’s rueful pathos revolves around Streisand’s defection after Mengers pushed her to appear the dreadful “All Night Long,” directed by her Belgian husband Jean-Claude Tramont.

Resembling a young Candice Bergen/Faye Dunaway, luscious, lanky Jodi Stevens embodies this ferocious yet vulnerable Jewish mama in a breezy, gossip-fueled, theatrical monologue that’s a juicy tour-de-force. The play’s predatory name comes from a book Sue wanted to write: “A Cannibal Love Story.”

Lowering her speaking voice to Menger’s growl and replicating her mocking tone, Stevens, clad in a bejeweled caftan, writhes around on a long couch, enlisting an audience member to fetch a joint or a drink, murmuring, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit by me…”

Sue Mengers was wickedly funny. One time, viewing someone else’s less-than-impressive dinner party guests, she snobbishly hissed, “Schindler’s B-list.” And after Charles Manson’s family killed Sharon Tate, she reassured Barbra Streisand, “Don’t worry, honey, they’re not killing stars, only featured players.”

Director Kevin Connors, set designer Jordan Janota, lighting designer Michael Blagys and costumer Diane Vanderkroef re-create the atmosphere of Menger’s home, located not far from the Beverly Hills Hotel, with its tall Regency doors, soft colors, Aubusson carpet and white orchids.

For those who relish Hollywood lore, “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers” is delicious. It’s on the Mainstage of the Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk thru March 5…www.musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883.

Susan’s 2017 OSCAR PREDICTIONS

Susan Granger’s Predictions for the 89th Academy Awards:

 

Every film year acts as a mirror & reflects the tenor of the times. When the Oscars began in 1929 to celebrate the motion picture industry, the winner was William Wellman’s anti-war “Wings.”

The subsequent Depression years celebrated character studies like “Grand Hotel,” “The Great Ziegfeld” and “Rebecca.” After the turmoil of Kennedy’s assassination, the Academy chose light-hearted fare like “Tom Jones,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Oliver!” And in 2000, the last time a Republican won the White House, after losing the popular vote, “Gladiator” won the Oscar.

Socio-politics inevitably influence the choices of the almost-7,000 Academy voters and, this year, the Academy inducted 683 new members. How they’ll vote is an unknown factor.

Back when studios had people under contract, they voted in “blocs” for the films of their home studio. As Joan Crawford once said, “You’d have to be an idiot to vote against the studio that holds your contract and produces your pictures.” But the studio system no longer exists.

After last year’s #Oscarsowhite protest, there was jubilation that 20 people of color were nominated this year. Seven actors of color are vying for top honors – and in other categories as well. Bradford Young (“Arrival”) is the first African-American cinematographer to be nominated, and Joi McMillon (“Moonlight”) is the first African-American woman editor to be nominated.

The impact of social media cannot be underestimated, since every casual remark and facial expression is open to interpretation. That puts added pressure, since voters are supposed to reward the best work, not to meet quotas. Yet, even scandal-tainted Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”) seems to have been forgiven.

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” seems to be the favorite but there are pitfalls – and Awards strategists are aware of them, knowing clients like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling will double their fees if they pocket an Oscar. So they’re working to define the film’s basic message: this movie matters because it celebrates artists, their creativity, their hopes and dreams.

But the fact remains: after Donald Trump’s election, the atmosphere has grown more charged and partisan. So will voters choose a light, escapist romp in serious times?

Alphabetically, the nine BEST PICTURE nominees:

ARRIVAL: a sci-fi time-travel thriller about a linguist who communicates with aliens

FENCES: the adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about race relations

HACKSAW RIDGE: the story of a WW II pacifist who won the Congressional Medal of Honor

HELL OR HIGH WATER: the saga of West Texas bank robbers that the question: when a bank steal from you, is it OK to rob them to save your family farm?

HIDDEN FIGURES: celebrating the contribution of African-American women working at NASA

LA LA LAND: a bittersweet nod to Hollywood musicals as star-crossed lovers follow their dreams

LION: the true story of a displaced Indian lad who is adopted by Australians and traces his roots

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: a gut-wrenching drama about a family tragedy and its consequences

MOONLIGHT: the three-part story of a young man exploring his racial and sexual identity

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominated for BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”), Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”), Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), garnering her 20th nomination.

Natalie Portman was the presumptive favorite but Emma Stone’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award tips the scale toward victory, although France’s Isabelle Huppert remains a strong threat.

MY PREDICTION: Emma Stone

Nominated for BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck (“Manchester By the Sea”), Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”), Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”), Denzel Washington (“Fences”).

While Casey Affleck copped critics’ kudos, Denzel Washington won the SAG award, making this category far more competitive, particularly since Viggo Mortensen’s character’s motto – “Power to the people, stick it to the man!” – resonates.

MY PREDICTION: Denzel Washington

Nominated for BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Viola Davis (“Fences”), Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”), Nicole Kidman (“Lion”), Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”), Michelle Williams (“Manchester By the Sea”).

It’s not really accurate to classify Viola Davis’ role as supporting since she co-starred but her placement in this category assures her a win.

MY PREDICTION: Viola Davis

Nominated for BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water”), Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea”), Dev Patel (“Lion”), Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”).

MY PREDICTION: Mahershala Ali, who eloquently spoke about being a Muslim and not persecuting those who are different – when he won the SAG Award.

Nominees for BEST DIRECTOR: Denis Villenueve (“Arrival”), Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester By the Sea”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”).

MY PREDICTION: Damien Chazelle

Nominees for BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Lion,” “Moonlight.”

MY PREDICTION: “Moonlight”

Nominees for BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: “Hell or High Water,” “La La Land,” “The Lobster,” “Manchester By the Sea,” “20th Century Women.”

MY PREDICTION: “Manchester By the Sea”

Nominees for BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: “Finding Dory,” “Moana,” “My Life as a Zucchini,”
“The Red Turtle,” “Zootopia.”

MY PREDICTION: “Zootopia,” examining implicit bias and discrimination in an animal kingdom.

Nominees for BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: “A Man Called Ove: (Sweden), “Land of Mine” (Denmark), “The Salesman” (Iran), “Tanna” (Australia), “Toni Erdmann” (Germany).

While “Toni Erdmann” garnered praise, it’s 2 hours, 42 minutes long, and its first hour tests the viewer’s patience. What may tip the scale is that Oscar-winning Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi (“A Separation”) has declared that the uncertainty surrounding his ability to travel to the United States was “in no way acceptable.” A vote for Farhadi may show solidarity with all immigrants, and Academy voters could take that into consideration.

MY PREDICTION: “The Salesman”

Nominees for BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: “Fire at Sea,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Life, Animated,” “OJ: Made in America,” “13th.”

This is one of the most contentious categories. “O.J.: Made in America” originally screened, in its seven-hour, 47-minutes, entirety at Sundance and played one week in May at theaters in New York and Los Angeles. One of its five ‘chapters’ then aired on ABC-TV, then all five ran on ESPN, before being released as a DVD. So, is it a TV documentary or a film? It was financed by a TV network and won many TV awards.

MY PREDICTION: “O.J.: Made in America”

Nominees for BEST ORIGINAL SONG: “Audition” (“La La Land”), “City of Stars” (“La La Land”), “How Far I’ll Go” (“Moana”), “Can’t Stop the Feeling” (“Trolls”), “Empty Chair” (“Jim: The James Foley Story”).

MY PREDICTION: “City of Stars”

Nominees for BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: “Jackie,” “La La Land,’ “Lion,” “Moonlight,” “Passengers” – for which Thomas Newman nabbed his 14th nomination, bringing a record total of 90 for any family; the Newmans include Alfred, Lionel, Emil, Thomas, David and Randy.

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST FILM EDITING: “Arrival,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “La La Land,” “Moonlight.” Both “Arrival” and “La La Land” won ACE Awards from their Guild.

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: “Arrival,” “La La Land,” “Lion,” “Moonlight,” “Silence.”

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: “Arrival,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Hail, Caesar!,” “La La Land,” “Passengers.”

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: “Deepwater Horizon,” “Doctor Strange,” “The Jungle Book,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

MY PREDICTION: “The Jungle Book”

Nominees for BEST COSTUME DESIGN: “Allied,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Jackie,” “La La Land.”

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING: “A Man Called Ove,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “Suicide Squad.”

MY PREDICTION: “Star Trek Beyond”

Nominees for BEST SOUND EDITING: “Arrival,” “Deepwater Horizon,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “La La Land,” “Sully.” Remember, pictures frame the story but it’s the sound that makes it seem real.

MY PREDICTION: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Nominees for BEST SOUND MIXING: “Arrival,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “La La Land,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.”

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: “4.1 Miles,” ”Extremis,” ”Joe’s Violin,” “Watani: My Homeland,” “The White Helmets.”

MY PREDICTION: “Joe’s Violin”

Nominees for BEST ANIMATED SHORT: “Blind Vaysha,” “Borrowed Time,” “Pear Cider and Cigarette,” “Pearl,” “Piper.”

MY PREDICTION: “Piper”

Nominees for BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: “Ennemis Interierurs,” “La Femme et le TGV,” “Silent Nights,” “Sing,” “Timecode.”

MY PREDICTION: “Ennemis Interierus”

“The Salesman”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Salesman” (Amazon Studios/Cohen Media Group)

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Iran’s Academy Awards entry as Best Foreign Language Film is another marital drama from Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi (“The Separation”).

When Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) Etesamis are forced to evacuate their crumbling Tehran apartment, they move into a more dilapidated abode, one that was previously occupied by a single woman with a young child.

The clutter she left behind when she was evicted gives subtle clues as to who she is and the promiscuous life she led. She’s described as “a woman with lots of acquaintances…who lived a wild life.”

Emad and Rana are both actors, working in an amateur theater company’s production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” playing Willie and Linda Loman, respectively.

There are problems translating the blunt sexuality of this American classic for an Iranian audience, particularly the local censors. Although it’s not immediately apparent, this play-within-a-play takes on subtle significance.

One day, when Emad is out, the doorbell rings. Thinking it’s her husband, Rena unlocks the front door and goes off to take a shower. But it isn’t Emad. It’s a stranger who brutally assaults her and flees, leaving his keys and his minivan outside.

Rana never saw her attacker, nor do we. When Emad suggests going to the police, emotionally devastated Rana refuses, explaining, “I don’t want to have to tell it in front of everybody.”

Indeed, Rana would have to justify why she left the door open and, inevitably, her reputation would suffer. She feels shamed, guilty and afraid to be alone, while enraged Emad is determined to track down the intruder and wreak revenge. Which he does.

When the culprit is revealed, it’s a total surprise. And the final confrontation between the Etesamis and Rana’s shadowy assailant is a riveting revelation.

Asghar Farhadi builds a suspenseful, if contrived thriller that’s haunted by themes of inadequacy, intimacy, respect and, as Miller says, “Attention must be paid.”

In Farsi with English dialogue, on the Granger Movie Gauge, “The Salesman” is an engrossing 8, an empathetic commentary on contemporary Iranian society.

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“The LEGO Batman Movie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The LEGO Batman Movie” (Warner Bros.)

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This inventive, animated spin-off of 2014’s “The LEGO Movie” astutely ridicules the Caped Crusader, beginning with the title sequence, since “All important movies start with a black screen.”

In the opening scene, self-centered Batman (Will Arnett) protects Gotham City from a series of desperados, led by the demented Joker (Zach Galifianakis), then regales its citizens about his heroics.

When he’s not crime-fighting, narcissistic Bruce Wayne lives in luxurious isolation with his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). After microwaving leftover lobster, Wayne watches ‘Jerry Maguire” in his Bat Theater – until he’s joined by eager orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).

Then Gotham City’s new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) suggests that her department work with the Caped Crusader, rather than just flashing the Bat-signal whenever his vigilante services are required, noting, “We don’t need an unsupervised adult in a Halloween costume karate-chopping poor people.”

So brooding Batman must learn to cooperate with law enforcement and accept Dick’s fervent desire to become his sidekick “Robin” after the Joker recruits a slew of supervillains, like Sauron from “Lord of the Rings,” “King Kong” and the “Wicked Witch of the West” from The Phantom Zone, Superman’s metaphysical space prison.

What makes Chris McKay’s awesome satire work is that many moviegoers are tired of the egotistical Dark Knight – from TV’s ‘60s Adam West to Christian Bale, courtesy of Tim Burton.

Dipping into DC Comics’ universe, a horde of screenwriters (Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Wittington) came up with a multitude of clever gags, cameos and pop culture references, including Superman (Channing Tatum), The Riddler (Conan O’Brien),  Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams) and Bane (Doug Benson).

Plus, there’s Maria Carey as Gotham’s Mayor McCaskill and a nod to Donald Trump’s taxes.

Visually, it’s a delight to see plastic LEGO building-blocks come to life, courtesy of Australia’s Animal Logic, in this family-oriented adventure.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The LEGO Batman Movie” is a silly, subversive 7, energetically played for laughs.

07

 

“The Great Wall”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Great Wall” (Universal Pictures/Legendary Entertainment)

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Filmed entirely in China, this epic, $150 million action/adventure/fantasy was designed to stun the Western world like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000).

Directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), who orchestrated the opening and concluding ceremonies of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Summer Games, it relates a 12th century Chinese legend.

Riding on horseback through the Gobi desert, European mercenary William Garin (Matt Damon) and his sidekick Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) evade nomads in the rugged steppes while searching for “black powder”(gunpowder) which will change the future of war.

When they’re taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, headed by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and Commander Ling (Jing Tian), they discover that the Great Wall was not erected to protect from foreign invaders. It’s a fortress against hordes of ravenous, dinosaur-like creatures – the mythical Tao Tei – that attack every 60 years.

Created by Industrial Light & Magic, the pageantry of first battle scene is awesome. The massive formations of the elite military garrison are color-coded: crimson archers with massive crossbows and a bright blue Crane Corps of spear-toting, female aerialists, secured by cables, bungee-jumping down the wall to stab the reptiles.

Lurking within is another Western captive, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who helps Tovar plan an escape. And the aerial conclusion, involving hot-air balloons, is dazzling.

“The biggest challenge was integrating the two cultures,” Zhang Yimou says. “So we spent a lot of energy and time working on the story.”

Working from an ambitious screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, based on a simple story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the plot is straightforward with little or no character development and dialogue that’s bizarrely peppered with contemporary phrases. 80% is in English, 20% in subtitled Mandarin.

His social consciousness raised, Garin eventually acknowledges the Chinese army’s altruism with its principled culture of “trust,” celebrating the cohesive unit over capitalism and individuality.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Great Wall” is a sumptuous 6, a visual spectacle.

06

 

“Paterson”

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

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Paterson (Adam Driver) is a New Jersey Transit bus driver in Paterson – they share the name.

Paterson leads an orderly, routine life. Every day, he gets up early, kisses his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), makes coffee and eats a bowl of Cheerios before walking to the bus depot.

As he drives his No. 23 route around the city, he observes his disparate passengers and listens to snippets of their conversation.

He comes home at the same time for dinner each night, walks their cranky English bulldog Marvin, and enjoys a beer at a corner bar. But his passion is writing poetry in a small notebook.

Paterson indulgently supports Laura’s whimsical black-and-white circular painting, black-and-white clothes, black-and-white cupcake-baking and country-singer ambitions; in turn, she encourages his gift for poetry. They love each other dearly.

Deadpan Adam Driver (“Silence”) embodies this quiet, observant man who derives creative inspiration from an Ohio Blue Tip matchbox, while the quirky exuberance of Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani is seemingly boundless.

There is very little plot, as such, and the contemplative poems were written for the film by Oklahoma-born Ron Padgett, whose work is obviously influenced by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara and the “New York School.”

Admittedly, independent writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s leisurely, low-budget films (“The Limits of Control,” “Only Lovers Left Alive”) are an acquired taste, one that I’ve yet to attain, although I do admire his cinematic eye.

Working with Frederick Elmes, he captures an idealized beauty in the mundane scenes of a dilapidated city that was once an industrial center.

Aside from the scenic Great Falls of the Passaic, Paterson is perhaps best known as the birthplace of comedian Lou Costello and the subject of an epic modernist poem by William Carlos Williams, a physician who lived in nearby Rutherford.

Williams viewed poetry as “equipment for living, a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.” Obviously, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson agrees.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Paterson” is a subtly stoic 6, a melancholy meditation.

06

 

“Fifty Shades Darker”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fifty Shades Darker” (Universal Pictures)

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When we last saw Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson), she’d brusquely walked out on domineering Seattle billionaire Christian Grey (scruffy Jamie Dornan) after he not only took her virginity but turned her into his sex slave.

Not long afterward, she has a job as an assistant to the editor in a publishing house. But when Christian buys an entire art exhibit of her photos, gullible Ana returns to his bedroom – with a “Chronicles of Riddick” poster on the wall – and his kinky Red Room (a.k.a. dungeon), which has been sensuously redecorated.

Their arrangement is renegotiated and, this time, he promises: no pain – unless you count nipple clamps.

Problem is: in addition to a creepy, spurned stalker (Bella Heathcote), there’s a pivotal woman lurking in Christian’s twisted psyche. It’s his mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) best friend, Elena (Kim Basinger), the cougar who taught Christian all about obedience and sado-masochistic sex.

“He needs a submissive – in life as well as in the bedroom,” she tartly informs skittish Ana.

Complicating matters further, Ana’s smarmy editor Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) loses his livelihood when Christian buys the publishing house where she worked, and he’s determined to wreak revenge.

Adapted by Niall Leonard from his wife E.L. James’ novel with its Harlequin dialogue and ineptly directed by James Foley, it’s now obvious that Christian is a psychologically disturbed sex addict.

There’s no romance or erotic foreplay en route to the simulated, stylized sex scenes, just silly soft-core porn, which quickly becomes so ludicrous that it’s laughable.

FYI: Film buffs may recognize Ana’s line, “I don’t expect you to fetch me coffee unless you’re getting some for yourself.” In a sly tribute to Melanie Griffith – Dakota Johnson’s real-life mother – screenwriter Niall Leonard lifted it from Griffith’s sassy 1988 “Working Girl.”

Over the end credits, there’s a teaser for “Fifty Shades Freed,” scheduled for 2018.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fifty Shades Darker” is a trashy, tawdry 2, tarnishing the luster of Valentine’s Day.

02

 

“Toni Erdmann”

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

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Going into the Oscar Foreign Language race as an overwhelming favorite, German filmmaker Maren Ade’s poignant comedic-drama revolves around a practical-joking father who tries to reconnect with his uptight daughter by creating an outrageous alter-ego.

Within that context, Ade satirically tackles feminism, workplace sexism, international capitalism, and German arrogance within the European Union.

After his beloved dog dies, divorced, middle-aged music teacher Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) feels totally lost. So he tries to reconnect with his only child – daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) – who is obsessive about her executive consulting work in Romania.

When Winifred, an eccentric prankster, turns up, unannounced, in Bucharest for the weekend, Ines is curt and obviously annoyed. “Are you really human?” he finally inquires.

Refusing to give up, free-spirited Winifred defiantly becomes an abrasive con-man, a “management coach” named Toni Erdmann, creating chaos in Ines’ high-pressure business life.

“It’s very complicated,” he admits.

The most memorable moments occur when Ines performs Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” in the middle of an Orthodox egg-painting party, followed by doffing her too-tight cocktail dress for an impromptu, existential, all-nude “team-building” birthday brunch.

After spending more than two years researching and writing, director Maren Ade notes: “The directing part is more about making the story more rich and complicated in its subtext.”

“I am interested in the drama of daily life, making the banal moments as dramatic as possible,” Ade goes on. “I like to shoot lots of variations on that so that, when I am at the editing table, I can continue to ‘write’ in a way.”

For that reason, it’s not surprising that “Toni Erdmann” runs nearly three hours – and the slow-building, character-establishing pace tests the audience’s patience.

FYI: Three-time Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson Is determined to come out of semi-retirement to star in an English-language remake – with Kristin Wiig as his long-suffering daughter.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Toni Erdmann” teases with an unpredictable, exuberant 8. It’s wildly rebellious and absurdly redemptive.

08

 

“The Bye Bye Man”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Bye Bye Man” (STX Entertainment)

 

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“Don’t think it! Don’t say it.”

That’s the cautionary phrase that propels this horror-thriller, based on an urban legend.

In the prologue, deranged journalist Larry Redman (Leigh Whannel) grabs his shotgun and goes on a shooting rampage, killing eight neighbors along with himself. That was in 1969.

Cut to the present, as three University of Wisconsin students – nerdy Elliot (Douglas Smith), his sexy girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and a jock named John (Lucien Laviscount) – rent a large, if decrepit house in rural Madison so they can live off-campus.

Then Eliot makes a discovery. There are mysterious inscriptions inside his bedside table, a repeated warning that reads: “Don’t think it. Don’t say it.” And the scrawled words, “Bye Bye Man.”

No one seems to know what that means, but, at a housewarming party, Sasha’s psychic friend Kim (Jenna Karnell) conducts a séance which reveals a malevolent, supernatural presence.

“Something is coming,” she says, and Elliot connects that to “The Bye Bye Man” mantra as his paranoia grows.

Sure enough, Elliot soon glimpses a ghastly ghostly, hooded figure (Doug Jones of “Pan’s Labyrinth”), as lethal hallucinations and more sinister questions arise.

Adapting from Robert Damon Schneck’s 2005 short story, “The Bridge to Body Island,” screenwriter Jonathan Penner and his wife, director Stacy Title, go with the evil boogeyman curse concept, rather than developing an intriguing backstory to explain it.

Instead, Title (“The Last Supper,” “Let the Devil War Black”) relies on predictable jump-scares and not-so-subtle misdirection to sustain the tension which culminates, not surprisingly, in grim ambiguity.

While the three primary characters are stereotypical, familiar faces surface as Faith Dunaway appears as Larry Redmon’s aged widow and Carrie-Ann Moss circles as a suspicious police detective.

FYI: Australian actor/writer Leigh Whannel created the “Saw” franchise with James Wan; and actress Cressida Bonas once had a romantic fling with Britain’s Prince Harry.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Bye Bye Man” is a tiresome, tepid 3. Don’t watch it.

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