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“Loving”

Susan Granger’s review of “Loving” (Focus Features)

 

Writer/director Jeff Nichols solemnly tackles one of the most influential Civil Rights cases of the late 1960s.

When his girlfriend Mildred (Ruth Negga) told bricklayer Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) that she was pregnant, he insisted on driving from rural Virginia to Washington, D.C. so they could get married.

Richard was Caucasian and Mildred was African-American; interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia in 1958 under an “anti-miscegenation” statute enacted in 1924.

After they returned home, Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) and his deputies burst into their bedroom to arrest them. The judge offered a one-year suspended sentence if they’d leave the state and not return for 25 years, noting:

“Almighty God created the races: white, black, yellow, Malay and red. He placed them on separate continents and, but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages.”

So the Lovings moved to Washington, D.C. But Mildred hated urban living and was determined to have Richard’s midwife mother (Sharon Blackwood) deliver their child. Which led to their second arrest.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1963 inspired Mildred to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred their plight to the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU lawyers (Nick Kroll, Jon Bass) gradually guided their case to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Loving vs. Virginia decision in 1967, which struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage – chronicled by a Life magazine photographer (Michael Shannon) as “The Crime of Being Married.”

But unlike “Sully,” which began with Capt. Sullenberger’s plane crash-landing in the Hudson River and went on to reveal “the rest of the story” – there are no dramatic disclosures that offer insight into the characters or their dilemma. Only historical facts, emphasizing stoic patience and perseverance.

Plus, Richard was a taciturn, monosyllabic, almost stone-faced fellow, and Mildred’s shy, soft-spoken demeanor was also extraordinarily low-key. Their reserved humility drains much of the drama out of this real-life story.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Loving” is a slow, sensitive, subdued 7 – timely primarily because it paved the way for the more recent controversy over same-sex marriage.

07

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812″

Susan Granger’s review of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (Imperial Theatre)

 

There has never been a more imaginative re-interpretation of an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” than this inventive electro-pop operetta which made its debut Off-Broadway at Ars Nova in 2012.

Written by composter Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, it’s become an eclectic, immersive theatrical experience that’s propelled by Josh Groban, making his Broadway debut.

Set just before Napoleon’s invasion, it revolves around Pierre (Groban), an unhappily married aristocrat. His diagrammed family tree is in the program. In their rousing “Prologue,” cast members urge you to read it in order to follow the complicated dramatic narrative.

Young Countess Natasha (Denee Benton) arrives in Moscow with her loving, protective cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) to stay with her god-mother Marya (Grace McLean), while her fiancée, Prince Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is away at the front.

Natasha’s initial meeting with Prince Andrey’s family goes badly. His spinster sister, Princess Mary (Gelsey Bell), notes that Natasha is “Too fashionably dressed, frivolous and vain,” while Natasha views Mary as “Too plain, affected, insolent and dry.”

Pierre’s scheming wife Helene (Amber Gray) flirts dangerously with Dolokhov (Nik Choksi), while her womanizing brother, Anatole (Lucas Steele), a callow cad, is determined to seduce lonely, impetuous Natasha, who doesn’t know he’s married. And so the decadent melodrama unfolds.

Wearing padding to increase his girth, along with a bushy beard, Josh Groban’s magnificent tenor resonates with melancholy, as he accompanies himself on the piano and accordion.

Also making her Broadway debut, Denee Benton has a lovely, lilting soprano. But Brittain Ashford’s soulful lamentations steal the show on more than one occasion.

The Imperial Theatre has been spectacularly reconfigured as an ornate cabaret by scenic designer Mimi Lien. Many audience members are seated onstage at tables and banquettes – with parquet runways for the actors in the orchestra and mezzanine. The walls are hung with gilt-framed Russian artwork and lush red velvet – with starburst chandeliers which lighting designer Bradley King uses to full advantage.

It’s a dazzling production, perhaps the most intoxicating musical since “Hamilton.”

“Rules Don’t Apply”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rules Don’t Apply” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Watching this reminded me of when Elizabeth Taylor died. As I was chatting with another critic at a Manhattan screening, the twentysomething publicist asked, “Who’s Elizabeth Taylor?”

After years of gestation, Warren Beatty has created an absurdly nostalgic farce about aviation tycoon/film producer Howard Hughes. But do moviegoers remember either of them?

Beatty’s story begins with “Never check an interesting fact,” a quote attributed to Howard Hughes, known for being the most eccentric, elusive executive in Hollywood, as shown in the 1964 prologue.

Flash back to 1958, when an aspiring actress, virginal Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), arrives in Hollywood from Virginia with her devoutly Baptist mother (Annette Bening). Marla soon discovers she’s only one of many starlets summoned by Hughes and paid $400 a week to ‘stand by’ for RKO Pictures auditions.

After Marla’s assigned driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a pious Methodist with a fiancée in Fresno, recites the strict rules of her contract, he admits he’s never actually met Hughes, although he’s eager to get the mercurial mogul to invest in a real estate deal he’s devised.

As time goes by, Marla gets involved with weirdly obsessive-compulsive Hughes (Warren Beatty), wistfully warbling the title song, as Frank becomes one of Hughes’ most trusted aides. But necessity cools their incipient romance until they both become disappointed by Hughes’ bizarre dream factory.

Scripted by director Beatty (“Bulworth,” “Reds,” “Dick Tracy”) from a story he wrote with Bo Goldman (“Melvin and Howard”), it’s as elegant and enigmatic as its subject. Perhaps more autobiographical than Beatty cares to admit, since he and his sister, Shirley MacLaine, were raised by Baptists in Virginia. But that’s just conjecture.

Charismatic Beatty also receives support from Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen.

Wall Street’s Steven Mnuchin, President-Elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, does a cameo with Oliver Platt, playing financiers kept waiting at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Other films about Howard Hughes include “The Aviator” (2004), “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988), “Melvin and Howard” (1980) and “Caught” (1949).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rules Don’t Apply” is a stylish, yet stilted 6, inevitably culminating in disillusionment.

06

“Jackie”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jackie” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

Under the direction of gifted Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, Natalie Portman creates a dazzling cinematic portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

On Nov. 22, 1963, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, terrified Jackie was at his side in the Dallas motorcade.  Shortly afterward, interviewed by an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup), she not only reveals her intimate version of what happened but also cleverly crafts the catchy “Camelot” concept of her husband’s brief tenure.

“Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief shining moment, there was Camelot,” she quotes from JFK’s favorite Broadway musical, reviving the legend of King Arthur.

There are flashbacks to the former First Lady narrating a CBS-TV tour of the White House, pointing out her refurbishments, proudly pronouncing that none were paid for by taxpayers’ money. And much is made of how grieving Jackie micro-managed JFK’s funeral procession for maximum historical impact, patterning it after Abraham Lincoln’s.

“I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real,” she observes.

A secretive chain-smoker, self-conscious Jackie exhibited steely determination and sophisticated discretion, particularly when it came to her husband’s infidelities. So little is made of that, except for Jackie’s rueful observation, “Nothing’s ever mine to keep…”

Nor is there any mention of her subsequent re-marriage to Greek shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis.

Superbly constructed by screenwriter Noah Oppenheim as an unsentimental character study, what’s most memorable is Natalie Portman’s authentic portrayal, a far cry from her Academy Award-winning ballerina in “Black Swan” (2010).

Replicating Jackie’s posture, walk and whispery voice, Portman’s stunning impersonation crosses the threshold of credibility, aided in no small measure by the bouffant hair style, glossy eye makeup and chic, meticulously reproduced wardrobe.

Pablo Larrain’s superb supporting cast includes Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s friend/aide Nancy Tuckerman, John Hurt as her Irish Catholic priest and Max Casella as LBJ’s loyalist Jack Valenti.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jackie” is a solemn, mesmerizing 7, propelling Portman into serious Oscar contention.

07

“Bad Santa 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Bad Santa 2” (Broad Green Pictures/Miramax)

Over the years, Billy Bob Thornton’s contemptible “Bad Santa” has become a comedic antidote to Yuletide treacle. But this sequel is a cold lump of wet coal.

Safecracking, alcoholic Willie Soke (Thornton) is having a really bad day when his old crony, Marcus (Tony Cox), sends cash, a cell-phone and an offer to rework their Christmas robbery scam in Chicago. Problem is: Marcus betrayed him, so how can Willie trust him again?

In Willie’s world, greed triumphs good sense, so he heads to the Windy City, where Marcus reveals that the real mastermind of the operation is Willie’s estranged mother, larcenous Sunny Soke (Kathy Bates).

Scornful Sunny volunteers at a Salvation Army-like charity run by sexy Diane (Christina Hendricks) and her philandering husband Regent (Ryan Hansen). They provide shelter for homeless men, dressing them as Santa Claus and sending them out to solicit money during the holiday season.

Sunny has carefully planned the $2 million heist to take place during the Christmas Eve Concert. But the crooks have to obtain certain keys carried by a hefty security guard (Jenny Zigrino), whom diminutive Marcus, then lecherous Willie try to seduce.

Complicating matters, now-grown, yet still cherubic Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) – for whom Willie hired a prostitute (Octavia Spencer) to “pop his cherry” on his 21st birthday – still worships cantankerous Willie, following him to Chicago so he won’t spend Christmas alone.

Screenwriters Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross attempt to replicate what made the original script click – although, certainly, audience appetite for rancid, R-rated humor has changed since 2003 – yet director Mark Walters (“Mean Girls”) can’t reproduce Terry Zwigoff’s crass, maniacal nastiness, even at the annual Santa-Con.

Furthermore, it boggles the mind that three Academy Award-winners (Thornton, Bates and Spencer) have stooped this low.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bad Santa 2” is a disappointing 2, proving that politically incorrect vulgarity isn’t always funny.

02

 

“Miss Sloane”

Susan Granger’s review of “Miss Sloane” (EuropaCorp)

 

The topic of corrupt lobbyists couldn’t be timelier, so it’s a shame that John Madden’s dense political melodrama is only mediocre.

Ruthlessly ambitious strategist Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is one of Washington D.C.’s most powerful power brokers. As her story begins, she’s being interrogated by a senior Senator (John Lithgow) about ethical misconduct.

Flashback a few months – to the situation that impelled this investigation.

For a client in Indonesia, Sloane successfully turned a play-for-pay politician’s ‘research’ trip into the vote that doomed a proposed import-tariff on palm oil – which she referred to as a “Nutella tax.”

Then, inexplicably, flipping her stance on a gun control bill, Sloane impulsively quit her job with NRA-supporter George DuPont (Sam Waterston) to join a fledging boutique firm that’s pushing for universal background checks for firearms purchases, tackling the gun lobby’s support of the Second Ammendment.

To the delight of her idealistic new boss, Rodolfo Vittorio Schmidt (Mark Strong), Elizabeth brings most of her young staff with her, except reluctant Jane Molloy (Alison Pill) who refuses to be poached.

Wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill, making sure “you surprise them and they don’t surprise you,” Elizabeth eschews any personal life, preferring to hire a hunky ‘escort’ (Jake Lacy) to satisfy her sexual needs.

Determined to ‘win’ at all cost, Elizabeth eventually crosses the line by manipulating one of her dedicated protégés, Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), forcing the young woman to face an episode of gun violence in her past that she’s deftly kept hidden.

Novice screenwriter Jonathan Perera crams far too much talky confusion into this cautionary tale. It eventually becomes so convoluted and contrived that even talented director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) can’t unscramble it.

In addition, it becomes increasingly impossible to empathize with Elizabeth, which differentiates this role from the similarly dedicated character that Chastain played in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Miss Sloane” is a flat 5, despite its formidable leading lady.

05

“Allied”

Susan Granger’s review of “Allied” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Brad Pitt once observed, “Success is a beast – and it actually puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. You get away with more instead of looking within.” That’s essentially the problem with “Allied.”

Rumors of Brad Pitt’s romancing co-star Marion Cotillard, which either did or didn’t precipitate his divorce from Angelina Jolie, seems to have overwhelmed Robert Zemeckis’ old-fashioned W.W.II thriller.

Pitt plays Max Vatan, an intelligence officer from Quebec working with the British military. The story begins in 1942 as he parachutes onto the Moroccan desert, making his way to Casablanca, where he meets up with Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) an undercover French Resistance operative who has charmed Vichy collaborationists.

Posing as husband-and-wife, they wangle an invitation to a party at the German Embassy, where they – against all odds – successfully assassinate a high-ranking Nazi and flee to London.  (Unfortunately, this blazing guns scene was revealed in the Coming Attractions.)

Soon after, they marry, have a baby daughter and settle into quiet domesticity in Hampstead Heath, when they’re not dodging bombs during the Blitz.

All’s well until, unexpectedly, Max is confronted with the RAF’s accusation that perennially evasive Marianne is actually a spy, secretly feeding classified information to Hitler’s Berlin.

Is it true? Or is Max being tested to see if he deserves a promotion?

Echoing with memories of the Brangelina romance that sparked “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the melodrama never really ignites – although Marianne asserts, “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works.”

Part of that stems from the stilted screenplay by Steven Knight. And the lack of suspense can be traced to Robert Zemeckis’ uneven, often sluggish pacing.

While debonair Brad Pitt looks dapper in Joanna Johnston’s period costumes, his performance is stiff, particularly since Marion Cotillard seems to relish her character’s inherent enigma. But they’re both beautiful movie-stars – and that distracts from the essential believability.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Allied” is a stylized, superficial 6, oddly paying nostalgic homage to the Ingrid Bergman/Humphrey Bogart classic “Casablanca.”

06

“La La Land”

Susan Granger’s review of “La La Land” (Lionsgate/Summit)

 

Opening with a fabulous fantasy sequence of morning commuters caught in congested traffic on Los Angeles’ freeways, Damien Chazelle’s dazzling contemporary musical chronicles longing, love and lingering wistfulness.

Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) works as a barista at a café on the Warner Brothers’ studio lot, while brooding jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is tired of playing background music at bars and restaurants.  They “meet cute” several times before they actually connect, tapping and twirling to “A Lovely Night.”

Encouraging one another to follow their dreams, their careers move forward. Mia writes a one-woman show attracting the interest of an influential agent, while Sebastian joins a touring rock band, fronted by his old friend Keith (John Legend). Not surprisingly, long separations take a toll on their romantic relationship as the seasons change.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) continues to astonish. Inspired by Jacques Demy’s French New Wave classic “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” along with “A Star Is Born,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Artist,” he stylishly transitions from naturalism into the breezy romanticism of make-believe through song-and-dance numbers, composed by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Choreographer Mandy Moore devises wondrous, magical moments, reminiscent of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds, particularly when dreamy lovebirds Mia and Sebastian glide into the heavens with “City of Stars” at the Griffith Observatory – captured by cinematographer Linus Sandgren.

Crashing back to reality, Chazelle’s exquisite staging of Mia’s audition scenes evokes the inevitable rejection and casual cruelty of the casting process.

A native of Rhode Island, Chazelle, at first, found Los Angeles a scary, lonely place, noting: “I wanted to try to present the city as something that brings people together and tears people apart. Inspires dreams and crushes them – and, maybe, re-inspires them again. The city is both villain and hero.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “La La Land” is an entrancing, unabashedly twinkly 10, affectionately recalling the Golden Era of Hollywood musicals.

10

“Nocturnal Animals”

Susan Granger’s review of “Nocturnal Animals” (Focus Features)

nocturnal-animals-poster

From fashion designer-turned-writer/director Tom Ford comes a bizarre marital thriller, as a divorced couple discover dark truths about their tortured relationship.

The opening credit sequences is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen: grotesquely obese, naked, middle-aged women writhe in billowing glitter as part of an installation at an elite Los Angeles art gallery opening, curated by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams).

Afterwards, Susan’s emotionally distant husband, WASP financier Hutton (Armie Hammer), jets off to New York for an adulterous liaison – under the pretext of saving his failing business.

So Susan curls up on a couch in their luxurious, modernist mansion in the Hollywood hills to read the manuscript of a new book, titled ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ sent by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who dedicates it to her since she’s a chronic insomniac.

The fictitious noir melodrama revolves around Tony Hastings (now-bearded Gyllenhaal) who, driving his Mercedes from Dallas to Marfa, takes a wrong turn and is ambushed on a deserted highway by three amped-up yokels who kidnap his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber).

Working with a West Texas lawman, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), Tony reconstructs the terrifying violence and grim brutality that took place late that night.

Obviously an allegorical commentary on Edward’s marriage to Susan and how she jilted him, the nihilistic novel causes her to reflect on and re-evaluate both her past and present relationships.

Adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan,” Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) has assembled a stellar cast, including Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as the rednecks’ creepy ringleader, and Laura Linney, as Susan’s icy socialite mother – and his intuitive social commentary is slyly cynical.

Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough score an amusing cameo on the shallow privileged, noting: “Our world is a lot less painful than the real world.”

Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey delivers intoxicating, eye-catching imagery, immeasurably aided by production designer Shane Valentino and costume designer Arianne Phillips.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nocturnal Animals” is a sleek, sophisticated 7, focusing on surreal passion and suspenseful revenge.

07

 

“Manchester by the Sea”

Susan Granger’s review of “Manchester by the Sea” (Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions)

manchester-by-the-sea

“Guilt is a tireless horse. Grief ages into sorrow and sorrow is an enduring rider,” wrote Dean Koontz – a quote which perfectly describes the tone of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.”

Even before this story begins, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has suffered unimaginable tragedy. Now his beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), a Cape Ann fisherman, has died, and Lee has been named guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

That means surly Lee, who has been working as an apartment janitor/handyman in Quincy, outside Boston, must return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, the working class suburb whose tight-knit residents view him as a social pariah.

While Lee wants to do right by his family, he’s reluctant to move back to a place that’s filled with painful memories and the inevitability of running into his foul-mouthed ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), who has re-married and is expecting a baby.

But rebellious Patrick is determined to stay on the North Shore, where he’s a popular high school jock who plays in a band and has numerous girl-friends.

Working from his original screenplay, director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) creates a poignant American melodrama, adroitly inter-weaving complicated flashbacks with comedic moments.

Lonergan’s authenticity is undeniable: the truth is in the nuanced details, like Lee and Patrick bickering about moving to Boston while walking down the street in the freezing cold after making Joe’s funeral arrangements and forgetting where they parked the car.

“Are you fundamentally unsound?” Patrick asks his cantankerous uncle.

Casey Affleck’s minimalist self-loathing deserves an Oscar nomination, along with Michelle Williams’ wrenching supporting turn. The ensemble also includes Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Matthew Broderick and Anna Baryshnikov (Mikhail Baryshnikov’s daughter).

FYI: The $8.5 million film was originally conceived by Matt Damon and John Krasinski. But they had schedule conflicts, and it was essential to shoot during the New England winter.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Manchester by the Sea” is a mournful 9, an unflinching, emotionally devastating tear-jerker.

09