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“Cars 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “Cars 3” (Pixar Animation/Disney)

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If you thought it was weird seeing a young Carrie Fisher and resurrected Peter Cushing in “Star Wars: Rogue One,” wait ‘till you hear Paul Newman’s gruff voice as Doc Hudson in outtakes from the first “Cars” outing in 2006.

This third installment begins as the current champion, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), is trounced by a new, sleek, black-with-purple headlights “tech” car, Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), who gloats, “I can’t believe I get to race Lightning McQueen in his farewell season.”

Realizing “the racing world is changing,” following a fiery crash, discouraged Lightning discovers that his Rust-eze sponsorship is now owned by smarmy Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion), who wants him to become a racing brand.

Eager to race in the Florida 500, Lightning reports for training at the high-octane site where Jackson Storm toned up. That’s where he meets Cruz Ramirex (voiced by Cristela Alonzo), a peppy performance coach who refocuses his angry outbursts with “Use that!” endeavoring to increase his speed from 198 mph to 210 mph.

When that doesn’t work, Lightning goes in search of Doc Hudson’s legendary guru, Smokey (voiced by Chris Cooper).

After Paul Newman’s death in 2008, Pixar decided to eliminate, rather than re-cast the role of Doc Hudson in “Cars 2” (2011). Now, Newman’s mentor legacy has been revived with new images and repurposed vocals.

Directed by veteran storyboard artist/animator Brian Fee from a script by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich and story by Fee, Ben Queen, Eyal Podell and Jonathan E. Stewart, it pokes fun at our culture’s reliance on trendy self-help mantras, introduces some female empowerment and attempts to reconcile the reality of graceful aging.

Back in Radiator Springs, there are glimpses of McQueen’s girlfriend Sally (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) with comic relief from the buck-toothed tow-truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy).

And this feature is preceded by a seven-minute short: “Lou” about the comeuppance of a schoolyard bully.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Cars 3” is a sentimental 6, as the anthropomorphic vehicles take more laps around the cinematic track.

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“The Book of Henry”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Book of Henry” (Focus Features)

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As a critic, I believe it’s my job to evaluate how well a movie accomplishes its vision and fulfills its purpose. In the case of “The Book of Henry,” I’m not sure exactly what that was – or is.

In the dysfunctional Carpenter family, sensitive, precocious 11 year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) manages the family finances, constructs steampunk inventions in a formidable backyard treehouse and evidences a maturity far beyond his years.

Perhaps that’s why he realizes that Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the vulnerable girl next-door, is being abused by her stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who happens to be the Police Commissioner.

Henry and his adorably bespectacled, eight year-old brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) live in suburbia with their hard-working, yet remarkably immature single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who spends her free time on the couch playing violent video-games. That’s when she’s not drinking wine with her sassy waitress friend (Sarah Silverman).

Unable to communicate productively with Child Protective Services, Henry slyly devises his own scheme, which involves training Susan as a sniper, equipping her rifle with a night-vision scope, and delivering explicit instructions on how to murder hulking Glenn Sickleman, despite her plaintive protestation: “We are not killing the police commissioner!”

After delivering a stunning performance opposite Bill Murray in “St. Vincent,” young Jaeden Lieberher doesn’t disappoint, nor do Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) and Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”).

The problem lies with novelist Gregg Hurwitz’s capriciously implausible script, which veers from suspicions of child-molestation to tear-jerking terminal-illness melodrama to tense thriller.

That leaves director Colin Trevorrow, who helmed the quirky, Sundance-acclaimed time-travel comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” (2012) and “Jurassic World” (2015), trying to pull together a multitude of disparate threads and contrived coincidences.

Leaving this misguided mess behind, Trevorrow’s now directing “Star Wars: Episode IX” (2019).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “The Book of Henry” is a confounding 4. Best forgotten.

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“47 Meters Down”

Susan Granger’s review of “47 Meters Down” (Entertainment Studios)

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Ever since Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975), summer has become synonymous with sharks. Consider “The Shallows,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “Open Water,” “The Reef,” even “Sharknado.”

So what about this latest entry?

Lisa (Mandy Moore) invited her younger sister Kate (Claire Holt) to join her at a Mexican resort after her longtime boyfriend dumped her because, as he said, she was ‘too dull.’

Determined to lighten Lisa’s depression, free-spirited Kate insists they go out dancing, where they meet two local lads (Santiago Segura, Yani Gellman) who talk them into a risky maritime adventure, even though the concierge warned them not to take side-trips that have not been ‘approved’ by the hotel.

Early the next morning, they walk out on the dock to board the rickety Sea Esta, as Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) explains the shark-tank excursion. Assuring him they’re experience with scuba equipment – which, for terrified Lisa, is not true – they don wet suits and face-masks equipped with radio communication.

After illegally ‘chumming’ the water to attract ravenous sharks, the guys climb into the observation cage first, going down five meters. When they emerge, they’re exultant about how exciting it is.

So the gullible gals follow. Then the chain snaps, dropping them 47 meters down to the bottom.  At that depth, they can no longer converse with the boat. Soon, they’re running low on air and the Great Whites are circling.

To make matters worse, they know that if they try to swim to the surface quickly, the rapid decompression (a.k.a. the bends), causing nitrogen narcosis, can kill them.

Shot in the Dominican Republic and the Underwater Studio in Basildon, outside of London, it’s sketchily scripted by Ernest Riera and director Johannes Roberts (“The Other Side of the Door”) under the aegis of producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who subsequently sold off the rights.

But a third act twist turns out to be ridiculous, reducing this underwater thriller to B-movie status.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “47 Meters Down” scores a scary, suspenseful 7 – with the hashtag #Sharkbait.

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“Maudie”

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

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Sally Hawkins delivers an exquisite performance as eccentric Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis.

Set in the late 1930s in rural Nova Scotia, Maud has been crippled since childhood with rheumatoid arthritis. Cheated out of her parents’ inheritance by her selfish brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), she’s sent to live in Digby with her stern, spinster Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), who treats her as if she’s feeble-minded.

Determined to make her own way in the world, indefatigably optimistic Maudie spies a HELP WANTED ad in the general store and trudges several miles on a dirt road to the tiny, ramshackle cottage owned by surly fish-peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) to apply for the job as his live-in housekeeper.

Since no one else will come near him, grumpy Everett grudgingly hires Maudie, although he constantly berates her, curtly telling her that his dogs and chickens are more valuable to him than she is.

Resolutely cheerful and creative, Maudie slyly finds time to paint while doing her chores, dabbing colorful flowers and vibrant birds on the shelves and walls of Everett’s 10’ x 12’ house, along with any scraps of wood she can find.

Everett’s verbal abuse of Maudie continues until, one day, a visitor (Kari Matchett) from New York City shows interest in buying some of her decorative artwork. That prompts enterprising Maudie to post a sign: “Paintings for sale.”

Meanwhile, Maudie and Everett get married, and she gradually confides shameful secrets from her past which, eventually, lead to a deeper understanding of her loneliness and need for independence.

Scripted as a simplistic biopic by Sherry White, splendidly photographed by Guy Godfree, and sensitively directed by Aisling Walsh, Maudie’s spirited plight strikes a poignant chord, culminating in a short clip from Diane Beaudry’s National Film Board documentary “Maud Lewis: A World Without Shadows.”

Along with Maud’s artwork, the Lewis’ little house is on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Maudie” is a simplistic, sincere 7, an improbable success story.

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“The Journey”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Journey” (IFC Films)

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Perhaps better suited to the History Channel, this film imagines a car ride during which Ireland’s sworn enemies, Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and Martin McGuiness (Colm Meaney), began to communicate after decades of hostility and violence in Northern Ireland.

In October, 2006, while trying to work out what became known as the St. Andrews Agreement, Rev. Paisley needed to fly from the famed Scottish golf resort to Belfast to celebrate his Golden Wedding anniversary with his wife. For security reasons, McGuiness insists on accompanying him.

As various mishaps and delays lengthen the time it takes to make 50-mile trip to the Edinburgh airport, the lifelong adversaries begin to converse for the first time.

Taking a conciliatory position, garrulous McGuiness, the former Irish Republican Army leader, initiates their interaction. At first, Paisley, the crusading 80 year-old founder of the Democratic Unionist Party, is overtly confrontational, exuding moral superiority. Eventually, his stern countenance softens, along with his vehemently anti-Catholic rhetoric.

What they don’t realizes is that their young Scots chauffeur (Freddie Highmore) is actually an undercover British agent, charged with monitoring their private conversation which is being watched via a secret camera by MI-boss Harry Patterson (John Hurt) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens).

Scripted by Colin Bateman and directed by Nick Hamm – with memorable performances from both Spall and Meaney – it provides an imaginative look at the background leading up to the assumption of power by First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in 2007.

In reality, Paisley’s wife Eileen was with him at St. Andrews; he and McGuinness did not actually begin to dialogue with one another until six months after the Agreement was signed.

On the Granger Mo vie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Journey” is a simplistic 6, giving the impression of eavesdropping on a historic conversation.

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“The Hunter’s Prayer”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hunter’s Prayer” (Lionsgate/Saban Films)

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When her wealthy parents are murdered in their suburban New York, home, teenage Ella Hatto (Odeya Rush) is thousands of miles away at a posh Swiss boarding school, sneaking out to a trendy nightclub with her boyfriend Sergio, unaware that she’s next on the assassin’s hit list.

But he’s no ordinary killer. Conflicted, conscience-stricken Stephen Lucas (Sam Worthington) has gone rogue. Suffering from PTSD and addicted to heroin, he’s filled with regrets over his military past. So Stephen decides not only to spare Ella’s life but also to track down the other gunmen who have been hired to kill her.

Posing as a bodyguard sent by her family, he explains that there’s a contract out on her as punishment for her father’s financial treachery.

As they travel across Europe, eluding a shadowy so-called friend (Veronica Echegui) and corrupt FBI agent (Amy Landecker), Stephen and Ella get to know one another, establishing an unlikely relationship that’s reminiscent of Luc Besson’s subversive “Leon: The Professional.”

“How do you do it?” Ella inquires. “Kill people.”

By the time they reach the imposing 19th century Yorkshire estate that belongs to malevolent Richard Addison (Allen Leech) and serves as a lavish front for his illegal narcotics distribution, they’ve become a team.

Working from a far-fetched, thinly sketched script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, based on a 2004 novel “For the Dogs” by Kevin Wignall, resourceful director Jonathan Mostow (“U-571,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “Breakdown”) relies on action, rather than exposition and dialogue, to propel this effective thriller. As a result, brawling fight scenes, careening car-chases and brutal shootouts abound.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hunter’s Prayer” is a gritty, fast-paced 6, best suited for video-viewing.

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“My Cousin Rachel”

Susan Granger’s review of “My Cousin Rachel” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel is the epitome of Gothic melodrama, filled with an insidious sense of danger and death.

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) was raised by his bachelor uncle Ambrose on a picturesque country estate on England’s Cornish coast. Content with his horses and dogs, Ambrose “Never had much need for women.”

Yet on a trip to Florence, Italy, elderly Ambrose met and married his distant cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz). Soon after, he fell ill and died.

Callow, self-centered 24 year-old Philip blames Rachel for his uncle’s death and when she arrives in Cornwall, he meets her with hatred in his heart.

But he’s inexorably drawn to this calm, charming woman who manipulates him with the same sophisticated skill by which she brews her mysterious herbal teas by candlelight.

Soon, peevish Philip is besotted by the beautifully beguiling, black-lace veiled Rachel, much to the dismay of his godfather, Mr. Kendall (Iain Glen), whose sensible daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger), everyone presumed Philip would eventually marry.

Adapted and directed by Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) as a costume drama, it lacks the essential emotional menace and momentum of Du Maurier’s narrative which so clearly delineated an irrepressible, independent woman who, despite mid-19th century society’s restrictions, was determined to live life on her own terms.

While Rachel Weisz (“Denial”) embodies the duality of du Maurier’s inscrutable, yet irresistible Rachel, unfortunately, Sam Claflin (“Me Before You”) never quite grasps impetuous Philip’s essential dilemma.

FYI: After Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh turned down the titular role, the first “My Cousin Rachel” (1952) starred Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton; it was nominated for four Academy Awards.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “My Cousin Rachel” is a stylish, seductive 6, leaving us to wonder: Did she? Didn’t she?

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“The Mummy”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Mummy” (Universal Pictures)

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This fantasy-adventure was designed as the first entry in an upcoming Universal franchise to be called the “Dark Universe,” featuring interconnected classic horror monsters from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s

Opening with an Egyptian proverb that specifies “we never die” but, instead, reincarnate again and again, it introduces a pharaoh’s treacherous daughter, Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who murdered her father, his second wife and their infant son after making a pact with Set, god of the dead.

Mummified and buried alive for her sins, Ahmanet’s tomb is ‘discovered’ in Iraq by antiquity-hunting Army Sergeant Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), his buddy Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) and archeologist Dr. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis).

Disregarding Jenny’s warning about an ancient curse, cocky Nick releases exotic, tattooed Ahmanet from imprisonment. This ancient enchantress subsequently sucks the life out of her victims with a deadly kiss, transforming them into zombies, while her spirit inhabits and confuses Nick, her “chosen” host.

Eventually, they all wind up in London, where Nick confronts maniacal Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and his alter-ego Mr. Hyde, who heads Prodigium, a clandestine organization that monitors evil entities around the world, as they search for the mystical Dagger of Set and its missing ruby finial.

Skimpily scripted by a team of writers that includes David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Jenny Lumet, John Spaihts and inexperienced director Alex Kurtzman (“People Like Us”), it’s filled with nonsensical action as thieving, impulsive, amoral Nick works his way toward some sort of dubious redemption.

Lacking originality – except in bestowing two glowing irises in each of Ahmanet’s eyes – even the CGI is disappointing, making one yearn for previous “Mummy” pictures that starred Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Christopher Lee or even genial Brendan Fraser.

Without a sense of mystery, danger or fun, the superficial concept plays like an elaborate, expensive prologue for future films with the Invisible Man (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster (Javier Bardem).

FYI: British actress Annabelle Wallis (Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour in Showtime’s “The Tudors”) is a niece of the late Richard Harris, best known to Millennials as Dumbledore in “Harry Potter.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Mummy” is a frantic 4, a monstrous flop.

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“Lettice and Lovage”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lettice and Lovage” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Laughter reigns as Westport Country Playhouse kicks off its 87th season with Peter Shaffer’s delightful comedy which has been imperceptibly snipped and deftly trimmed by director Mark Lamos.

While loquacious Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) is doing her best to enliven her tour of the historic Fustian House in Wiltshire, which, admittedly, is “quite simply the dullest house in England,” her wildly imaginative fabrications raise the ire of strait-laced Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), a formidable bureaucrat from the Preservation Trust.

Summoned to the Trust office, Lettice knows she’s going to be reprimanded and dismissed but, gradually, a bond of friendship develops between these lonely, yet disparate middle-aged women.

They meet on a weekly basis, indulging in grisly historical reenactments and enjoying goblets of a homemade libation, a cordial adapted from a 16th century recipe, containing vodka, brandy, sugar and a parsley-like herb called lovage.

Eventually, an accident occurs in Lettice’s basement apartment in Earl’s Court that requires the services of a solicitor (lawyer), Mr. Bardolph (Paxton Whitehead), summoned to defend her against a charge of attempted murder. Mr. Whitehead originated this part on Broadway in 1987, and he has become a master of befuddlement.

Although Shaffer wrote this play specifically for Dame Maggie Smith, Lamos’ Westport ‘odd couple’ casting is spot on: Kandis Chappell’s charismatic Lettice brims with theatrical vitality and grace, while Mia Dillon’s strident, idealistic Lotte softens, becoming a terrific comic foil.

John Armone’s entrancing set is evocative, complemented by Philip Rosenberg’s lighting, John Gromada’s sound design, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes.

The eloquent characters created by prolific playwright Peter Shaffer (“Amadeus,” “Equus”) always have a timely universality and his acerbic observations about London’s post-W.W.II urban planning lament the destruction of antiquity: “It wasn’t the Germans who destroyed London, it was British architecture.”

“Lettice and Lovage” runs through June 17 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For more information, go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

 

“Megan Leavey”

Susan Granger’s review of “Megan Leavey” (Bleecker Street)

 

While “Wonder Woman” celebrates a fantasy hero, “Megan Leavey” reveals the true story of a real woman, a Marine in combat, and the bomb-sniffing German Shepherd who becomes her constant companion.

Growing up in suburban Valley Cottage, New York, Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), admittedly, doesn’t connect with people very well, nor does Rex, the large, aggressive, allegedly uncontrollable Military Working Dog dog with whom she’s paired in Marine K-9 training at Camp Pendleton.

They soon become inseparable and, when they’re deployed to Iraq, their bond is forged even deeper. After more than 100 missions from 2003 to 2006, Megan is wounded by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and sent home, leaving Rex behind with a series of different handlers.

Suffering from PTSD, stoic Megan descends into a deep depression, much to the annoyance of her ne’er-do-well, divorced mother Kathy (Edie Falco). And it isn’t until her empathetic father Bob (Bradley Whitford) questions what would make Megan’s life worth living, that she realizes that the answer is Rex.

So Megan launches her own four-year quest to adopt Rex when he’s injured and duly retired after his military service, battling a stubborn veterinarian who deems Rex “too ferocious” and, publicly, enlisting help from New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (Andrew Masset).

The uplifting screenplay is sensitively crafted by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt and deftly directed as a docudrama by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish,” the SeaWorld expose), who elicits nuanced performances not only from Kate Mara but also Common, as Megan’s no-nonsense sergeant, and Ramon Rodriguez, as her romantic interest.

Kudos also to cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore and editor Peter McNulty, whose restrained depiction Megan and her cohorts patrolling the desert war zones of Fallujah and Ramadi seems accurately harrowing.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Megan Leavey” is a subtly satisfying 7, celebrating our soldiers’ canine comrades.

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