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“Professor Marston & the Wonder Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” (Annapurna/Sony)

 

This is, undoubtedly, the most kinky, provocative comic-book superhero ‘origin’ story – and it’s true!

It begins with a public burning of “Wonder Woman” comics and the stern interrogation of Harvard psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) by Josette Frank (Connie Britton) of the Child Study Association of America, who grills him about his subversive obsession with bondage, which Marston maintains symbolizes his motivational theory.

Flash back to when Marston and his even-more-erudite wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), were fascinated by human behavior, specifically the manipulative dynamics of his DISC theory (dominance-inducement-submission-compliance).

“Are you normal? What is normal?” Marston quizzes Radcliffe undergrads, noting, “Men’s minds are far too limited, That’s why we need women!”

While testing their new invention (a.k.a. the lie detector), they become besotted by a student, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the daughter of suffragette Ethel Byrne and niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Open-minded Olive hides the Marstons in her sorority so they can observe ritualized hazing.

When Olive moves in, she enjoys sexual relations with both Marstons, which, not surprisingly, leads their expulsion from Harvard. After moving to Rye, New York, their daring threesome continues, as both women bear William’s children while continuing their penchant for costumed S&M role-playing.

In the 1940s, William starts writing stories, incorporating his psychological theories into the composite character of Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, a liberated role model with radical sexual subtext that intrigues comic book publisher E. C. Gaines (Oliver Platt).

Obsessed with the inherent eroticism, Angela Robinson directs from her own heavy-handed script, eliciting surprisingly memorable performances from the trifecta, particularly multi-faceted Rebecca Hall – and the timing is perfect since “Wonder Woman” is the pop culture hit of 2017.

If you want to know more, read Jill Lapore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” and David Hadju’s “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” is an intriguing, unconventional 8, propelled by the feminist superpower.

08

“The Mountain Between Us”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Mountain Between Us” (Fox 2000: 20th Century-Fox)

 

Despite Idris Elba’s charismatic presence, this melodramatic survival story struggles to achieve a steady pace and tone, as the characters played by Elba and Kate Winslet fight to remain alive in the wilderness.

When their paths cross in the airport after their flight to Denver is cancelled because of an impending storm, Alex Martin (Winslet) and Ben Bass (Elba) are desperate. She’s a photojournalist, frantic to get home for her scheduled wedding, while he’s a British neurosurgeon, determined not to miss urgent surgery on an ailing child.

Impulsive Alex suggests chartering a small plane and cautious Ben, somewhat hesitantly, agrees. But soon after they’re airborne, the folksy pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) suffers a fatal stroke and the plane smashes into a snowy ridge in the High Uintas Wilderness, part of the Rockies in northern Utah.

Since no one ever filed a flight plan, they’re left to their own devices, along with Walter’s (unnamed) golden Labrador. Alex’s leg is obviously broken, but Ben sets it so adroitly that she’s able to hobble with an improvised cane.

Realizing there’s no cell phone service, few supplies and subzero temperatures, Alex recites the Rule of Three: “People can survive three days without water, three hours without shelter and three minutes without air.”

Which leads to the crucial question: Should they stay within the confines of the shattered plane, trusting to be spotted by a search party, or trek down the slippery slopes with their canine companion, hoping to find help?

Adapted by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe from Charles Martin’s 2010 romance-novel, it’s helmed at a leisurely pace by Dutch/Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Omar”), leaving plenty of time for Alex and Ben to bicker and bond, igniting an utterly predictable romance, while cinematographer Mandy Walker supplies breathtaking, vertiginous vistas, shot in British Columbia

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Mountain Between Us” is a slogging 6 – with a sappy ending.

06

“Blade Runner 2049″

Susan Granger’s review of “Blade Runner 2049” (Warner Bros./Sony)

 

Although it cost $150+ million and brings back Harrison Ford (albeit not until too late), French/Canadian director Denis Villenueve’s gamble to revive “Blade Runner” hasn’t paid off.

First, it’s relevant that Ridley Scott’s 1982’s legendary neo-noir thriller wasn’t a big box-office success. Second, it’s now 35 years later, and many hardcore sci-fi fans who were dazzled by the original aren’t around anymore.

Set three decades into the future, the ominously bleak, dystopian Los Angeles cityscape with its constant rain and neon-lit grime is stunning.

After an upgraded Nexus 9 replicant LAPD Officer “K” (Ryan Gosling) hunts down and kills an outdated Nexus 8, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he stumbles across a secret that his steely supervisor, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) fears will destroy the delicate balance between replicants and humans.

It seems that a previous generation of replicants were able to reproduce – and there’s a child out there to prove it: the offspring of the android Rachael (Sean Young) and Det. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Creepy robot-manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) with his replicant Luv (Sally Hoecks) are determined to discover how the Tyrell Corporation (from the first film) made its androids capable of procreation, so he can use that technology to increase replicant production.

In the interim, “K” has embedded memories, which give him and others of his kind, the illusion of human experience yet keeping them subservient. While enduring his own existential crisis, K has a compliant AI companion, a hologram aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), whom he thinks he “loves.”

Which poses the essential question: “Do machines have feelings?”

Riffing on Philip K. Dick’s characters from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” co-screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green support Denis Villenueve’s (“Arrival”) vision which consistently emphasizes the gritty style/production design over the slow-paced story.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Blade Runner 2049” is a visually striking, surreal 6, perhaps earning cinematographer Roger A. Deakins his 14th Oscar nomination and first Academy Award.

06

“Flatliners”

Susan Granger’s review of “Flatliners” (Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems)

 

Hollywood has suffered a disastrous summer because the major studios have raided the franchise larder too many times – and this unnecessary remake is one of the worst.

Back in 1990, Joel Schumacher’s psychological horror/thriller picture was not only Oscar-nominated but made the top 20 box-office hits of the year. Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon, it had a provocative premise which is repeated this time ‘round.

Riddled by guilt over her role in the drowning death of her sister, medical student Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page) is morbidly curious about the afterlife. Determined to use an MRI to map brain activity after ‘death,’ she initiates an experiment in which her heart is stopped, she ‘dies’ and is then revived.

Afterwards, Courtney discovers that her consciousness has been expanded and her abilities amplified; she not only plays Debussy on the piano and bakes bread but also diagnoses her patients’ symptoms with unerring accuracy, recalling everything she’s every learned.

Naturally, her colleagues – insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), cocky Jamie (James Norton) and driven Marlo (Nina Dobrev) – are determined to have their turn in the chair in the hospital’s sublevel C ‘lab’. Only reluctant, ex-fireman Ray (Diego Luna) tenaciously abstains.

Inevitably, there’s a traumatic price to be paid for dabbling in this ethical/moral/legal dilemma – and it’s horrifyingly high.

Working from Ben Ripley’s shallow, utterly predictable, rebooted script, Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) lumbers the contrived, repetitive narrative along at a slow pace, delivering only banal imagery and minimal, generic scares.

In homage to his role of Nelson Wright, Kiefer Sutherland makes a brief appearance as the authoritative, gray-haired dean of the medical school.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Flatliners” is a tepid 3. Why bother?

03

“Victoria & Abdul”

Susan Granger’s review of “Victoria & Abdul” (Focus Features/Working Title)

Undiscovered until 2010, this revelatory historical footnote chronicles an improbable friendship that enhanced the elderly British monarch’s final years.

Bookended by a prologue and conclusion set in India, the period dramedy begins with a vivid depiction of how widowed, 81 year-old Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) was not only weary but also utterly bored by her perpetual Royal duties.

Until one evening at a dinner, she spots Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a tall, turbaned Muslim servant recently dispatched to London from Agra, along with a companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), to present Her Royal Highness with a ceremonial coin for her 1887 Golden Jubilee.

Ignoring protocol, guileless Abdul makes not only makes eye contact with the Queen but also kisses her shoe. The next day, she imperiously demands that he and Mohammed remain at court.

Before long, Abdul becomes HRH’s “munshi” (teacher/spiritual advisor) and constant companion, piquing her curiosity about the Urdu language and the tenets of Islam. “We are here for a greater purpose,” he tells her.

As Empress of India, she wants to know more about that country and culture, which increasingly appalls her bigoted, jealous courtiers, headed by Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), and repressive, resentful son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Prince of Wales, who subsequently became King Edward VII.

Inevitably, complications arise, revolving around Abdul’s marital status and health, but they remain close friends for 14 years – until Victoria’s death in 1901.

Freely adapted from a book by Shrabani Basu, Queen Victoria’s handwritten journals in Urdu and Abdul Karim’s private notebooks, it’s somewhat superficially scripted by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), who fails to flesh out Abdul’s character, discreetly skirting the obvious racial and colonial aspects.

But by coupling Judi Dench with Bollywood’s Ali Fazal, director Stephen Frears (“Philomena”) ignites an irresistible chemistry. And Dame Judi, who played a younger version of Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), commands every scene she’s in.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Victoria & Abdul” is a sublimely subtle, ravishing 7 – aimed specifically at an older audience.

07

“American Made”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Made” (Universal Pictures)

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As Gary Spinelli’s story unfolds, it’s obviously “based on a true lie,” meaning that the facts have been embellished but several things are clear.

Back in the 1980s, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) was a hotshot TWA pilot from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who sneaked Cuban cigars in his luggage and relieved his in-flight boredom by flipping a few switches and careening around the wild blue, as the resulting turbulence abruptly awakened sleeping passengers.

His antics caught the attention of shady CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who gave Seal his own Cessna and offered a monetary deal he couldn’t refuse, despite incredulously inquiring “Is all this legal?”

According to glib Schafer, legitimacy was not a worry, including Seal’s initially surreptitiously snapping surveillance photographs and, later, covertly smuggling cocaine and AK-47s across the border into Central America.

Working as a double agent, he consorted with Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Majia) of Colombia’s Medellin cartel, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (Alberto Ospino) and the Nicaraguan Contras.

Collaborating with Doug Liman, who launched the “Bourne” franchise and scored with Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” proves a perfect match between director and star, interweaving authentic news footage and touching on real-life corruption and a scandal that allegedly involved Lieut. Col. Oliver North and the National Security Council, along with President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

Flashing his ingratiating smile, Cruise, as Seal, had no trouble convincing his at-first skeptical wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) that she shouldn’t have a problem with all the cash coming in – so much, in fact, that all the closets in their house were stuffed with it, along with numerous duffels hidden in underground crypts.

The only fly-in-the-ointment turns out to be Lucy’s rotten hillbilly brother (Caleb Landry Jones), who catches the attention of their local sheriff (Jesse Plemons).

FYI: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cross Creek Pictures decided to cut a scene showing Seal with then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, who was receiving a lap dance at a strip club, reportedly because they didn’t want the film to be overly political.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Made” is an edgy, engaging, adrenaline-charged 8, proving once again America is the land of opportunity.

08

“Stronger”

Susan Granger’s review of “Stronger” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

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This is the inspiring, true story of 28 year-old Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs in the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Hard-drinking Bauman, who worked in Costco’s deli department, wasn’t running that April day. He was a spectator, waiting at the finish line for his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), a hospital administrator, who was running for charity. They’d broken up and he was hoping they’d get back together.

Unfortunately, he just happened to be standing right next to where one of the terrorists had planted a pressure-cooker bomb. It blew off both his legs at the knee. Both Bauman and his cowboy-hat wearing rescuer, Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), became the symbols of “Boston Strong,” thrust into the spotlight by the media.

On hearing that her son was a double-amputee, Bauman’s overprotective mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), with whom he still lived in Chelmsford, was devastated, turning to cigarettes and booze. Meanwhile, his father (Clancy Brown), uncle (Lenny Clarke) and the rest of his working-class family yell, curse and trade insults with one another.

Although Bauman vowed to do whatever it takes to walk again, during the ensuing months of agonizing rehabilitation, he was forced to deal with seemingly insurmountable mental and physical hurdles, many thrust on him because he’d become famous.

“I’m a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?”

At a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup game, when Erin pushes him out onto the ice in his wheelchair to wave the American flag, the ensuing noise and chaos give him a panic attack.

Based on the memoir by Jeff Bauman and Brett Witter, it’s scripted by John Pollono and directed by David Gordon Green, who focus on relationships and, predictably, conclude with footage of the real Jeff and Erin.

Although Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a memorable performance, it’s too bad that a disabled actor wasn’t given the chance. Years ago, William Wyler cast Harold Russell, who lost his hands in a training accident during W.W.II, as a veteran in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

FYI: This is the second film about the Boston Marathon bombings, following Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day,” focusing on the manhunt for the culprits.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Stronger” is a steadfast 7, revealing the kind of faith it takes to survive this kind of ordeal.

07

“Desperate Measures”

Susan Granger’s review of “Desperate Measures” (York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church)

 

Set on America’s Western prairie in 1890 and inspired by Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” this world-premiere production of an imaginatively spirited new musical begins on a dire note.

Hot-tempered cowboy Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) is incarcerated at the End-of-the-Trail Jail, ready to be hanged for killing a man in self-defense in a bar fight. After conversing with sympathetic Sheriff Green (Peter Saide), Johnny realizes that only hope rests on his demure sister Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), a novice nun at the nearby Our Lady of the Tumbleweeds Mission.

If sweet Susanna can persuade smarmy Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) to spare his life, perhaps Johnny can marry the woman he loves, voluptuous saloon stripper Bella Rose (Lauren Molina). But the lecherous Governor will only grant Susanna’s request if she agrees to surrender her chastity to him.

That unexpected complication leads to Shakespeare’s oft-used “bed trick,” in which a gullible clod is duped into thinking he’s bedding one woman, only to discover it’s another, followed by a bride-switch, presided over by a perpetually inebriated, Nietzsche-quoting priest (Gary Marachek).

Working from Peter Kellogg’s slyly conceived book and lyrics – that cleverly utilize contemporary language in iambic-pentameter – set to David Friedman’s catchy, cheerful, country music, director/choreographer Bill Castellino keeps the comedy clipping along at a fast pace.

Darting about James Morgan’s barn-siding set, the six-member ensemble is enchanting and their singing soars, one melody after another. Kudos also to Nicole Wee’s period costumes, Paul Miller’s lighting, and Julian Evans’ sound design. David Hancock Turner’s backstage band combines guitar, banjo, mandolin, double bass and piano music.

If you’re looking for fresh, exuberant fun, head over to the York Theatre on Lexington Avenue for this rollicking romp!

 

Sex with Strangers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sex with Strangers” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

There’s a pervasive sadness that dominates Laura Eason’s timely observations in her contemporary dramedy about how a serious novelist and a sex-obsessed blogger cope with ambition and passion in the internet age of social media.

At a tiny bed-and-breakfast in rural Michigan, Olivia (Jessica Love), a gifted but discouraged novelist in her late 30s, meets Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), a brash, 28 year-old blogger who arrives unexpectedly late one evening during a snowstorm.

To his chagrin, he quickly discovers that there’s no phone service or Wi-Fi, wailing, “I can’t get online? People will think I’m dead!”

Although Olivia knows nothing about him, he’s read her ill-fated first novel and is eager to see her latest manuscript, although she now describes herself as a “hobbyist,” admitting she’d rather die in obscurity than subject herself to “anonymous strangers staying horrible, misspelled things about my work.”

Flattered after he heaps effusive praise on her talent, she’s besotted by his confident, rakish charm. Soon they’re impetuously locked in a torrid embrace. The next day, her natural reticence is once again overcome by his exuberant male energy.

As it turns out, Ethan is an erotica star, chronicling his casual sexual conquests in a blog: Sex With Strangers. Using his internet connections, he introduces Olivia to his agent, helping her get published once again. But complications arise, revolving around printed books versus e-books and the inevitability of jealousy when she achieves more literary respect than he ever will.

Curiously, love never enters the equation, since she – quite rightly – distrusts him from the getgo. They never establish an intimate friendship, let alone a viable relationship, which inevitably leads to loneliness. Torrid lust between the dust-jackets turns out to be an anti-romantic comedy.

Astutely directed by Katherine M. Carter, both Jessica Love and Chris Ghaffari deliver creditable performances, aided by Edward T. Morris’ spacious set, Caitlin Cisek’s authentic costumes, Alan Edwards’ evocative lighting, and Beth Lake’s sound design.

Since its premiere in 2011 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, “Sex with Strangers” has been produced more than 50 times with companies in New York, London, Sydney, and Buenos Aires. And playwright Laura Eason is perhaps best known as a writer on TV’s “House of Cards.”

“Sex with Strangers” runs through Oct. 14 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org.

 

“Battle of the Sexes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Battle of the Sexes” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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This sports drama serves up the story behind the famed 1973 exhibition tennis match between 29 year-old Billie Jean King and 55 year-old Bobby Riggs, who bragged he could beat any woman player in the world.

As reigning Wimbledon champion two years running, King (Emma Stone) was in her prime, while brash, gambling-addicted Riggs (Steve Carell) was Wimbledon’s champion back in 1939.

So with great fanfare on September 30, King was carried, like Cleopatra on a chaise, into the Houston Astrodome by bare-chested guys, while Riggs, wearing a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket, arrived by rickshaw. At the net, King handed Riggs a squirming piglet, confirming his male chauvinist status.

Squaring off for the $100,000 prize, it was a milestone for the women’s liberation movement. At that time under the aegis of condescending Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), women on the tournament circuit earned far less than men. So King was determined to get respect and equal pay for female players.

Meanwhile, off the court, Billie Jean was experiencing a different dilemma: her sexual awakening. Although married to supportive Larry King (Austin Stowell), she was attracted to hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  While facing a palimony suit in 1981, King became the first famous athlete to come out as a lesbian.

Fresh from her Oscar-winning “La La Land,” Emma Stone added 15 pounds of muscle to her slim frame, nailing King’s competitive style, aided by her athletic stunt-double, NCAA’s Kaitlyn Christian. Supported by Steve Carell, who captures Riggs’ desperation, they’re a winning match.

Working from Simon Beaufoy’s subtle screenplay, husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) cleverly capture the tenor of the time, utilizing actual footage of Howard Cosell’s insidiously sexist commentary and offering glimpses of fashion designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) and ‘World Tennis’ magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).

FYI: According to Forbes, Emma Stone is now the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Battle of the Sexes” aces an empowering 8, focusing on the social change that swept the country during the last quarter of the 20th century.

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