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“Grounded”

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

 

Talk about timely! George Brant’s provocative theatrical monologue revolves around a cocky U.S. Air Force Pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) who revels in her job, feeling exhilarated “up in the blue,” dropping missiles on desert fortresses in Iraq.

As she tells it, her beloved F-16 is out of there even before the explosion happens. Afterwards, she unwinds with other “Top Gun” boys, downing drinks at the bar.

While on leave at home in Wyoming, she meets Eric, who works in a hardware store. “Most guys don’t like what I do,” she notes with a macho swagger. “Feel they’re less of a guy around me. I take the guy spot, and they don’t know where they belong.”

Seeing her in a flight suit, Eric’s turned on. Soon she’s pregnant, which means she has to take a desk job. “I want the sky. I want the blue, but I can’t kill her,” she wails plaintively.

After her daughter is born, she reports back for active duty, only to discover that she’s been re-assigned to the “Chair Force.” Her new job is to pilot an $11-million unmanned drone, sitting in front of a video monitor in an air-conditioned trailer on a base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada – for 12 hours each day.

She’s devastated but her commander assures her, “In one year, the drone will be king.”

The evocative lighting (Solomon Weisbard), sound (Kate Marvin) and cinematic projections (Yana Birykova) convey the harrowing reality and immediacy of long-distance combat. A drone pilot not only sees the faces of the ‘enemy’ close-up but also bears witness to the destruction when her missiles hit the ground.

Although Eric gets a job as a blackjack dealer in a casino and does his best to try to understand the pressure she’s under, the Pilot eventually suffers PTSD or, according to the latest lingo, “a moral injury.”

Carrying this intense performance piece on her slim shoulders is Elizabeth Stahlmann, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama. Under the direction of the Yale Rep’s Liz Diamond with a metal chair as her only prop – she establishes an easygoing rapport with the audience, which intensifies their empathy as she becomes mired in conflicting emotions, steeped in the psychological side-effects of remote warfare.

FYI: Anne Hathaway, who played the Pilot in Julie Taymor’s 2015 Off-Broadway production, immediately optioned the property and it’s in development as a major motion picture.

“Grounded” plays at the Westport Country Playhouse thru July 29. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

“Wish Upon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wish Upon” (Broad Green Pictures/Orion Pictures)

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One doesn’t often see horror pictures released in the middle of summer, but perhaps filmmakers figured that this $12 million supernatural thriller might turn a profit even before its DVD release in the fall.

Still traumatized by the suicide of her mother (Elizabeth Rohm) when she was a youngster, 17 year-old Clare Shannon (Joey King), along with her friends Meredith McNeil (Sydney Park) and June Acosta (Shannon Purser), is having a tough time in high school.

So when her dumpster-diving dad, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), gives her an old, octagonal Chinese music box with an inscription that promises to grant its owner’s seven wishes, she’s intrigued.

Clare’s first wish is that her nasty nemesis, Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford), would “just go rot.” Sure enough, the next day, mean girl Darcie develops a ghoulish necrotizing fasciitis. Then one of her acquaintances inexplicably dies.

Predictably, Clare goes on to wish for a large inheritance, instant popularity and the affection of a hunky jock, Paul Middlebrook (Mitchell Slaggert), as gruesome deaths mysteriously mount up.

Eventually, Clare asks a nerdy admirer named Ryan Hui (Ki Hong Lee) and then his cousin (Alice Lee) to decipher the Mandarin lettering on the malevolent box. That’s when Clare realizes that her selfish wishes are actually killing people.

Scripted by Barbara Marshall (“Viral”) and directed by longtime cinematographer John R. Leonetti (“Annabelle”), it’s a simplistic adaptation of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story “The Monkey’s Paw,” in which a cursed artifact gives its owner three wishes, each of which exacts a dreadful punishment.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wish Upon” is a twisted 3, proving there’s always a price to be paid.

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“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”

Susan Granger’s review of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” (Actual Films/Participant Media/Paramount Pictures)

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Not long after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the historic 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, a crack in Antarctica’s ice shelf caused a 1.1-trillion-ton block of ice to calve, forming a colossal iceberg which is already breaking into huge chunks.

Couple that with the increasing threat of mega-fires, worsening floods, deeper droughts and worldwide temperatures hitting a record high for the third year in a row. So to call this documentary follow-up to 2006’s Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth” timely is an understatement.

Former Vice-President and Nobel Peace Prize-recipient Al Gore updates his observations with advances in climate science, encompassing enlightened global energy policies and the latest in technology.

“Mother Nature is telling us, and people are noticing it,” Gore maintains.

According to Gore, global warming is the most threatening part of our ecological crisis because the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet is the most vulnerable part of the Earth’s system.

More than increasing population and advanced technology, the one factor that may determine Earth’s future is our way of thinking and the values on which we base the decisions we make.

As the late economist Rudi Dornbusch observed, “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they would.”

Because of that, Gore believes that President Trump’s decision to leave the Agreement has isolated the United States in the world community – with China trying to step in to assume a leadership role.

Gore points out that the real risk is that other countries will retaliate by trading among themselves as they create advances in solar and wind energy. And they have the legal right to place barriers on U.S. products that contribute to carbon pollution.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” is an effective, impassioned 6, as environmentally-conscious citizens and their governments struggle to cope with consequential challenges.

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“The Big Sick”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Big Sick” (Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)

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With comic book adaptations and animation crowding the multiplexes, this surprisingly witty, sweet-natured romantic comedy is a welcome change.

Based on the real-life courtship between Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, it relates how a struggling Pakistani/American comedian (Nanjiani) in Chicago connects with flirtatious grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan), as what they both thought was a one-night stand develops into a real relationship.

Kumail’s devoutly Muslim family expects him to enter into a traditional, arranged marriage with an eligible Pakistani woman. So he avoids telling them about his growing affection for Emily because he knows his parents would disown him if he married a Caucasian.

It’s the classic dilemma of a trying-to-assimilate, second-generation immigrant caught between two worlds, and Kumail’s cross-cultural deception leads to their eventual breakup.

But when Emily develops a mysterious infection and is placed in a medically induced coma, distraught Kumail rushes to the hospital and steadfastly stays by her side.

That’s where he meets her frazzled parents, Terry and Beth (Ray Romano, Holly Hunter), who are wary of Emily’s ex-boyfriend hovering around during their family vigil, particularly since they’re having their own marital issues.

Scripted by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (best known as the downtrodden computer programmer on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) who pick the scabs off painful themes, it’s adroitly directed by Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”), showcasing Kumail’s sardonic comic timing.

What makes it extraordinary is the detailed delineation of each character, including Kumail’s family (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Shenaz Treasury) and his comedy club buddies (Bo Burnham, Jurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Big Sick” is an endearing 8. Kumail describes this crowd-pleasing date movie as “a romantic coma-dy.”

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“Despicable Me 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “Despicable Me 3” (Universal Pictures)

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Gru and his mischievous yellow Minions have conquered the Chinese box-office! According to China’s tracking company Entgroup, this third installment opened as the biggest animated hit in that country’s cinematic history.

The story follows former bad-guy-turned-secret agent Gru (Steve Carell) and his fellow agent wife Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), along with their three adopted daughters – maturing Margo, unicorn-obsessed Agnes and playful Edith – who travel to Freedonia to meets his long-lost, ostentatiously wealthy twin brother, Dru (also voiced by Carell), who wants Gru to return to villany.

Having been unceremoniously fired by the new Anti-Villain League boss (Jenny Slate) and deserted by his sinister Minions, reformed Gru and clumsy Dru take on Balthazar ‘Evil’ Bratt (Trey Parker).

Bratt is a resentful ‘80s-obsessed child TV star-turned-diamond thief, who has a sassy robot on-call, a trusty keyboard guitar, a penchant for Rubik’s Cube and a fervent desire to destroy Hollywood. Tossing bubble-gum bombs, Bratt endlessly repeats his tagline: “I’ve been a baaaad boy!”

Too bad that most of this is in the theatrical trailer.

Franchise screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, working with co-directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who also voices the babbling, nonsensical Minions), maintain a frantic, if disjointed pace, filled with inoffensive jokes and colorful sight gags.

‘Back in 2015, Coffin confirmed that the Minions, clad in goggles and dungarees, are all male, noting, “Seeing how dumb and stupid they often are, I just couldn’t imagine the Minions being girls.”

FYI: Julie Andrews vocalizes Gru and Dru’s rotten mother Marlene, while Trey Parker is better known as the co-creator of TV’s “South Park.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Despicable Me 3” is a silly 6, leading audiences to expect more innocuous sequels in the future.

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“The House”

Susan Granger’s review of “The House” (Warner Bros.)

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A strong contender for the Worst Picture of the Year, this new Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler comedy fails on almost every level.

In suburban Fox Meadow, Scott (Farrell) and Kate (Poehler) Johansen are justifiably proud of their accomplished daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins), who just got into Bucknell, the college of her choice, earning a full, town-funded scholarship.

Problem is: sneaky Bob (Nick Kroll), the corrupt Councilman, decides to divert the designated funds to build an elaborate municipal swimming pool, leaving no money for Alex. Since neither Scott nor Kate ever thought about saving for their daughter’s education, they’re panicked.

But their best friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), whose estranged wife (Michaela Watkins) dumped him because of his gambling addiction, comes up with what they think is a brilliant idea: Why not open an illegal, secret casino in Frank’s spacious, almost-empty house?

Frank assures them that over the summer, they can make at least a half-million dollars. The Johansen’s split will be more than enough money for Kate’s tuition.

Where do they get the working capital to finance this elaborate fully-staffed casino, complete with a blackjack table, craps tables, a roulette wheel, surveillance cameras, dealers and bartenders?

And why does bumbling Officer Chandler (Rob Huebel) represent the only law-enforcement around?

Working from an absurdly implausible script he wrote with Brendan O’Brien, Andrew Jay Cohen (“Neighbors”) makes an inauspicious directing debut.

In this stale, sophomoric farce, the charmless Johansens behave like middle-aged dorks – with Kate re-experiencing her love of weed and Scott inadvertently getting a macho ‘fix’ by becoming an enforcer known as The Butcher. That leads to a cameo by Jeremy Renner as a ruthless mobster.

The depravity gets worse when two foul-mouthed females (Lennon Parham, Andrea Savage) square off in a “Fight Club” brawl while townspeople bet on the outcome.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The House” is an atrociously tedious 2. What a terrible waste of time and talent!

02

 

“Singin’ in the Rain”

Susan Granger’s review of “Singin’ in the Rain” (Summer Theatre of New Canaan)

 

There’s great, exuberant fun – for the whole family – under the big white tent at Waveny Park as the Summer Theatre of New Canaan turns what many consider the best movie musical of all time into a rollicking stage production.

It’s 1927 when Monumental Pictures premieres “The Royal Rascal,” yet another silent movie starring the swashbuckling idol Don Lockwood (Mathew Tiberi) and beautiful Lina Lamont (Jodi Stevens).

Suddenly, Hollywood is rocked by the arrival of sound, as Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” fills theaters. Don Lockwood’s game to make the transition to talkies – but what will audiences think when they realize that ditzy, vapid Lina Lamont’s squawky, strident voice could shatter glass?

Cue the arrival of an adorable ingénue, Kathy Selden (Annabelle Fox), an impudent chorus girl who catches the eye and captures the heart of Don Lockwood. At the suggestion of Don’s tap-dancing buddy Cosmo (David Rosssetti), they’ll secretly use Kathy’s dulcet voice to dub Lina’s screech.

Fashioned as a whimsical satire by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it features a catalogue of Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown songs, including “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “You Were Meant for me,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Moses Supposes” and “Good Mornin.’”

While the entire cast is enchanting, Jodi Stevens steals the show. Every time she opens her mouth, it’s hilarious. Lina Lamont’s character is supposedly based on silent screen beauty Norma Talmadge, who couldn’t make the transition to “talkies” and her informant-BFF was supposedly actress Clara Bow.

Credit Melody Meitrott Libonati’s astute direction and Doug Shankman’s choreography, particularly for the inventive staging of the rain-drenched title number – with the entire cast decked out in yellow slickers and rubber boots, twirling umbrellas.

Special kudos to Scott Bryce for filming the imaginative videos and Kelly Loughran as the femme fatale in “Broadway Melody.”

Running through July 30, it’s impossible not to enjoy this tuneful musical – the best of Broadway in nearby New Canaan.

For tickets and more information, call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org.

“1984”

Susan Granger’s review of “1984” (Hudson Theatre: 2017-2018 season)

It’s no coincidence that after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, George Orwell’s 1949 cautionary, dystopian, sci-fi nightmare topped the best-seller list.

And it’s not surprising that astute producers Scott Rudin and Sonia Friedman just brought Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s grimly intense London stage adaptation of that novel to Broadway.

The doomed hero, an Everyman narrator named Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), is introduced through a group of citizens gathered around a table in what resembles a shabby book store/library. It seems that by 2050 the Party fell but, before that, the terror of thought-control reigned throughout the land.

But back in 1984, Winston Smith decides to keep a diary, refusing to accept the oppression of Big Brother’s manipulated reality as chronicled in “The Principles of Newspeak,” which outlines the structure and etymology of the official language of Oceania’s dictatorship.

In newspeak, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength. Those who protest are “vaporized” or “un-personed,” denied existence and obliterated from history.

And if O’Brien (Reed Birney), the interrogator at the Ministry of Truth tells you that 2+2=5, you must accept that as fact. The contemporary parallels are abundantly clear.

When Winston endeavors to evade the Thought Police, he joined by Julia (Olivia Wilde, making her Broadway debut), a red-belted member of the Anti-Sex League, who slips him a note, simply stating, “I love you.”

Although they indulge in what they believe is an intimate tryst, enjoying forbidden delicacies like chocolate and coffee – they subsequently discover that they have not escaped surveillance. Their images appear on a giant screen above the stage – and Winston must pay a horrific price for disobedience.

This wildly innovative production features so much sadistic political torture, punctuated by blinding lights, frequent blackouts and an ear-blasting soundscape that no one under the age of 13 is allowed in the audience. And if you leave for seat for any reason during the performance, you are not permitted to return.

Audience members are also alerted that the play is performed without an intermission and runs 101 minutes which is obviously a reference to Room 101, where the torture takes place. Since nothing in this depressing play is subtle, the audience seems to be numb by the time it concludes.

 

 

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Susan Granger’s review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (Columbia Pictures/Marvel Studios)

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Are you ready for the on-going Spider-Man origin story? This one finds the webslinger joining Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, cavorting with the Avengers like Iron Man and Captain America.

Frantic 15 year-old, high-school sophomore Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is frustrated because, although he’s been given an awesome high-tech suit by billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), he’s told not use his superpowers except on a local level, reporting to Stark’s flunkie, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau).

“Can’t you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?”

Although he’s supposed to keep mum about his alter-ego, in chemistry class Peter thoughtlessly tinkers with his web-fluid formula in chemistry class, blowing his cover to his quintessentially geeky best bud Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and, eventually, to his bewildered Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

While Peter’s grades are suffering at the Midtown School of Science and Technology, his hormones are ranging over a flirtatious senior (Laura Harrier), who’s running the Homecoming celebration.

She’s the daughter of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a villainous salvage contractor-turned-contraband alien-arms merchant. Flying with huge metallic wings, he’s known in the comics as The Vulture.

Riffing on the iconic comic-book character created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, it’s a fragmented collaboration between team of six screenwriters and Jon Watts (“Cop Car”), whose direction is uneven.

Filled with running gag references to other Marvel movies, there’s a segment in which Captain America (Chris Evans) figures not only in Peter’s history class, as the teacher lectures about conflict over the Sokovia Accords, but also in gym, saying, “So you body’s changed. I know how that feels.”

There are also amusing cameos from Zendaya (as Mary Jane, a.k.a. MJ), Donald Glover (as burglar Aaron Davis), and Stan Lee (as an irate Queens neighbor). But I felt the final post-credit scene with Cap chiding the audience for its patience fell flat, although a Spidey sequel is obviously in the works.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a scrappy 7, evoking fond memories of the adolescent angst in John Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

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“The Hero”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hero” (The Orchard)

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Sam Elliott has never stopped working in films, ever since he made his debut with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969).  And – in real life – it’s Sam Elliott who eventually married their co-star Katharine Ross.

In “The Hero,” Elliott plays veteran actor Lee Hayden, whose biggest hit was a cowboy film in the 1970s. Lee’s only job these days is doing voice-overs – in his distinctive, smoky baritone – for commercials, like “Lone Star Bar-Be-Cue sauce, the perfect partner for yer chicken…”

Living alone in a small house in Malibu, Lee is turning 71 – and has just been told that he’s got pancreatic cancer. Divorced and alienated from his resentful, now-adult daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), Lee spends time with his drug-peddling neighbor/friend/former co-star Jeremy (Nick Offerman).

That’s where he meets flirtatious 35 year-old Charlotte (Laura Prepon), who immediately latches onto Lee, explaining that she has a ‘thing’ for older men, along with the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

So Lee asks Charlotte to accompany him to a banquet at which he’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild.

Mixing Ecstasy in their champagne in the back of the limo en route to the dinner, they both get high, which explains why Lee gives a perplexing acceptance speech which, inexplicably, “goes viral” on the Internet, leading to an onslaught of offers and a potentially big audition.

Empathetically co-written by Marc Basch and director Brett Haley (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”), it’s about resilience in the face of mortality, and it has a special resonance for those who have ever tried to succeed in mercurial show business.

Propelling every scene, Sam Elliott delivers an understated, yet Oscar-caliber performance, and it’s fun to spot Katharine Ross in a small part as Lee’s ex-wife.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hero” is a compassionate 7, drenched with melancholy.

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