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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Susan Granger At the Movies: ‘Monkey Kingdom,’ ‘Child 44,’ ‘Unfriended’

By Susan Granger

“Monkey Kingdom” is the eighth Disneynature live-action eco-documentary – and one of the best. Narrated by Tina Fey, it follows a toque macaque monkey in Sri Lanka on her journey up the social ladder.

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Since Disney movie-makers routinely anthropomorphize animals, giving them names, the heroine is Maya. She and her simian troop live in abandoned Buddhist temple ruins, now overrun by jungle.

Poor Maya is at the bottom of the social order. Which means that - while Raja, the alpha male, and a trio of favored females can climb to the top of a fig tree and eat the ripest fruit - Maya and the other low-born must remain on the ground, foraging for scraps.

One fine day, a male macaque named Kumar comes visiting. Tina Fey wryly dubs him “hunky monkey.” Kumar is banished by Raja but not before impregnating Maya, who gives birth to a baby called Kip.

Soon afterwards, a rival band of macaques invades their Castle Rock habitat, exiling Maya’s tribe to fend for themselves as they explore neighboring terrain, including a nearby town.

Using her ingenuity to care for her tiny son, feisty Maya finds her way into favor, particularly when Kumar returns to replace aging Raja as leader of the clan.

According to writer/co-director/producer Mark Linfield: “Maya is like any female human, trying to do the best for her kid. But she’s got the weight of macaque society pressing on her. So she has to use her street smarts to get out of the social straitjacket that she was in.”

What’s remarkable is how close Linfield’s crew could get to the primates over the two and a half years of filming, focusing on their recognizably human traits. Amplifying the effect is Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, which includes “The Monkees” TV theme song.

FYI: It’s quite family-friendly except for a few tense scenes that might briefly frighten preschoolers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Monkey Kingdom” is an engaging 8, combining education with entertainment – and proceeds from Disneynature documentaries help protect the natural world.

Perhaps there are some novels that should never be made into movies - which may explain why Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 suspenseful best-seller “Child 44” just doesn’t translate onto the big screen.

Set in the paranoid claustrophobia of Stalin-era Russia, it revolves around Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a Ukrainian orphan who became the World War II hero who raised the flag over the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945.

Now, Leo works as an interrogator in the MGB (predecessor of the KGB), chasing alleged spies to get them to rat on other alleged traitors.

One day, he’s summoned to handle a case involving a child’s death, the son of a colleague. Superficially, it appears to be an accident by the train tracks, but it soon becomes obvious that it’s murder.

Problem is: Leo’s told that murder is a capitalist’s disease that does not exist in the U.S.S.R. And it’s not just one homicide; it’s a series of grisly, grotesque child killings that no one wants to acknowledge.

Heavy-handedly adapted by Richard Price (“The Color of Money”) and ploddingly directed by Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”), what should be a tension-filled thriller becomes mired in a multitude of undeveloped characters with too many clichéd subplots and incoherent complications.

Tom Hardy’s performance is weighed down by his overly thick accent. As his schoolteacher wife Raisa, Noomi Rapace is burdened with motivations that continually change as the plot thickens. Which leaves Joel Kinnaman with the juiciest part - as sniveling, cowardly agent Vassili.

Supporting roles are ably filled by Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine, Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, who does a couple of memorable scenes before disappearing for the final third of the film.

FYI: There was a brief international incident when this film was pulled from distribution in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus for so-called “historical inaccuracies,” but even that failed to arouse much interest.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Child 44” is a forbidding, forgettable 5. Read the book instead.

Like the ‘found footage’ in “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), “Unfriended” is a gimmick picture. It’s a cautionary tale of a group of high-school friends who become the target of an unseen cyber-stalker.

What makes it unique is that it’s shot while looking at a computer screen. The teenagers communicate through Skype with back-story information handled through texts and online searches.

The stream-of-consciousness story takes place in real time on the Apple desktop of Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who starts to receive mysterious Facebook messages from the account of her former BFF Laura Barnes (Heather Sossamon), who committed suicide exactly a year earlier by shooting herself; Laura was humiliated when a prank video of her was anonymously posted on YouTube and circulated online.

Faced with this taunting, enigmatic entity seeking vengeance, Blaire is obviously conflicted. She says one thing to a friend on Skype, while she contradicts herself in text messages to someone else.

Blaire’s online cohorts include her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), yuppie Adam (Will Peltz), wisecracking Ken (Jacob Wysocki), vain Jess (Renee Olstead), and volatile Val (Courtney Halverson).

Writer/producer Nelson Greaves and director Levan Gabriadze use ubiquitous WiFi and social media to develop the theme, which is tediously similar to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”

Their point is: while we use passwords to maintain the illusion of online safety, they’re useless when creepy hackers take over, resulting in cyberbullying.

Surprisingly, what never occurs to any of the participants is that they can simply turn their computers off and take a break from the screaming hysterics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unfriended” is an unnerving, flashy 4, delving into internet-obsessed teens’ daily digital lives.


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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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