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“Black Panther”

Susan Granger’s review of “Black Panther” (Marvel Studios/Buena Vista-Disney)

 

Exactly a decade after “Iron Man” launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a powerful, new superhero has arrived – and he’s sensational!

The warrior T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the Prince/protector of the fantastical African nation of Wakanda, an isolated, secretive kingdom that’s rich with Vibranium – the mythic ‘alien’ metal that comprises Captain America’s shield. This invaluable resource has enabled incredible technological advances including magnetic transfers, superconductors, and spaceships.

Following the death of his father in a terrorist attack, noble T’Challa must fight M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the rival Jabari tribe, to claim his heritage.

Then there’s the threat posed by predatory arms dealer/thief Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), whom T’Challa intercepts in South Korea, aided by a CIA operative (Martin Freeman).

Eventually, the fight for Vibranium has T’Challa facing off with villainous Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a swaggering former Navy SEAL from Oakland, CA. whose father was Wakandan.

Plus, there’s T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and his mentor, the spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), hiding a secret of his own.

The formidable female characters are T’Challa’s love interest, the beautiful War Dog spy Nakia (Lupito Nyong’o); his feisty little sister/gadgets guru, Shari (Letitia Wright); Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett); and Okoya (Danai Guyira), leader of his Dora Milaja security team.

Written with insightful wit by Joe Robert Cole (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) and director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), its complex plot delves into familiar themes like revenge v. justice, duty v. conscience and why identity matters.

Kudos to cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Oscar-nominated for “Mudbound”) for creating a visual feast.

The first African-American superhero to appear in American comics, Black Panther was created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four No. 52. Historical footnote: Black Panther appeared three months before the Black Panther Party formed during the Civil Rights Movement.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Black Panther” pounces with an exciting, exhilarating 8, an ambitious, socially relevant, Afro-futurist origin story.

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“Peter Rabbit”

Susan Granger’s review of “Peter Rabbit” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Animation)

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The gentle, whimsical tales of Beatrix Potter’s beloved blue-jacketed bunny have been transformed into a ‘hip’ hybrid live-action/digital-animation adventure.

Mischievous Peter (voiced by James Cordon) habitually raids the vegetable patch that belongs to cranky Mr. McGregor (voiced by Sam Neill), accompanied by his neurotic cousin Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody) and younger sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (voiced by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, respectively).

One day after chasing Peter, elderly Mr. McGregor suffers a fatal heart attack, bequeathing the bucolic property to his fussy, fastidious great-nephew, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), an ambitious executive, passed over for promotion at Harrods, who plans to sell the Lake District farm and invest in his own toy store in London.

“I’ve got nothing against the countryside,” he says. “I just find it disgusting.”

Upgrading vegetable-patch security means not only evicting Peter and his family but also Pigling Bland (voiced by Ewen Leslie) and the amiable hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (voiced by Sia).

But plans change after Thomas meets lovely Bea (Rose Byrne), an artistic neighbor who has maternally befriended the reckless, rebellious rabbits who have lived together – without parental supervision – in a nearby burrow since old Mr. McGregor baked their father into a pie.

Adapted by Rob Lieber, working with director Will Gluck (“Easy A,” “Annie” remake), it’s flippant and frantically paced, as the furry, photorealistic, anthromorphic critters bounce to pop tunes and enjoy gross-out humor.

It’s a shame that their good intentions are thwarted by an unfortunate scene in which Peter and his friends deliberately pelt allergic McGregor with blackberries, mocking allergy-sufferers and trivializing food-induced anaphylaxis, a life-endangering condition.

After angry advocates and parents of children who suffer from similar food allergies urged a film boycott, Sony issued an apology about not being more aware and sensitive to this serious health issue.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Peter Rabbit” scampers in with a strained 6, as the silly slapstick gags get a bit too sadistic.

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“Sand on the Floor”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sand on the Floor”

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Documentary filmmaker Steve Rockstein reveals the spiritual history of Jews on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas through the DNA of the oldest Synagogue under the American flag.

Through indelible images and insightful interviews, Rockstein traces the Congregation’s Spanish Inquisition roots to the relevance of its uncertain future.

In the Prologue, Professors Jane S. Gerber and Judah M. Cohen relate the flight of Sephardic Jews to the Danish West Indies from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, while one of their descendants, Dorothy Isaacs, a Virgin Islander, focuses on the founding of the Synagogue in downtown Charlotte Amalie, detailing how the building is interwoven in the tapestry of her life.

The historical Synagogue is distinguished by its sand-covered floor. Its cherished origins can be traced back to when Jews were forbidden to worship and placed sand on the floor to muffle the incantations of their prayers. Some believe the sand symbolizes the Sinai Desert through which the Israelites wandered for 40 years after the Exodus, or the splitting of the Red Sea.

Yet no institution is devoid of conflict. In the 1950s, there was a schism between the Sephardic and Reform movement, resulting in a transitional period which evolved into the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas with progressively changing rabbinic leadership.

While the Synagogue and its close-knit, devoted followers tenaciously remain downtown, on the East End of St. Thomas, the growing popularity of Chabad Lubavitch presents a different perspective.

Rabbi Asher Federman and his wife Henya arrived on-island in 2005. Emphasizing Orthodox tradition, their goal is to provide a wide variety of educational, religious and social services.

Utilizing inventive camerawork, Steve Rockstein Investigates this diversity, examining – among other things – the sanctity of touch, as Henya observes: “Every handshake has the potential to become potent.”

“There is much more that unites us than divides us,” concludes Reform Rabbi Bradd Boxman, urging the two congregations to work together.

While Rockstein duly acknowledges how the two devastating 2017 hurricanes have challenged island living, his powerful Epilogue divulges this astutely observational filmmaker’s journey back to Judaism, 49 years after being targeted by a Jewish pedophile.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sand on the Floor” is an enlightening 8, lifting the spirit and nurturing the soul.

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SAND on the FLOOR a film by Steve Rockstein PREVIEW from Steve Rockstein on Vimeo.

“Fifty Shades Freed”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fifty Shades Freed” (Universal Pictures)

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The final episode of this inexplicably successful, soft-core porn franchise opens with billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) dazzling his bride, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson),with an ostentatious display of his staggering wealth: his jet, his yacht, his chef, etc.

“This is yours?” she gasps. “No, ours,” he smoothly replies.

Yet their gilded honeymoon in Paris and the Cote d’Azur is marred by a relic that Anastasia brings to their union – namely, her desire to continue working in book publishing.

“You can’t keep me in a cage,” she tells her domineering husband.

Integral to that is the threat posed by Ana’s former boss, smarmy Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), who lost his job and is out for revenge – along with Ana’s ire at Christian’s architect (Arielle Kebbel) – initiating fist fights, car chases and kidnapping.

Plus, Ana’s desire to get pregnant clashes with Christian’s selfish wish to keep her affectionate attention totally for himself. Just think of the dilemma of trying to keep a curious toddler away from the ‘forbidden’ Red Room with its handcuffs, whips, chains, butt plugs and nipple clamps!

While the predictable plot plods on, cue a strange nocturnal interlude when Ana and Christian, sleepless in Seattle, meander into the kitchen and devour each other, along with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Based on the pulpy, S&M novels by British author E.L .James (a.k.a. Erika Mitchell), this installment is again adapted by her husband Niall Leonard and directed by James Foley, who propels the protagonists through glossy musical montages to an improbable happily-ever-after.

Fortunately, there are no plans to film James’ fourth novel which tells the same flimsy fairy tale from Christian Grey’s perspective.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fifty Shades Freed” is a tiresome 2, particularly ill-timed with the focus on female empowerment in #MeToo and #Time’sUp.

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“12 Strong”

Susan Granger’s review of “12 Strong” (Warner Bros.)

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This contemporary war picture celebrates the brave soldiers who fought against Al Qaeda -without probing too deeply into the political justification or disillusioning aftermath of their heroic efforts.

Green Beret Operational Detachment Alpha 595 consists of a 12-member U.S. Special Forces squad sent into mountainous northern Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. Their mission is to take the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif within three weeks – before the winter snow hits.

Led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena), they’re informed that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.”

Accompanied by tribal warriors under Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) – who later became Afghanistan’s Vice-President – they ride on horseback across 40 miles of Taliban-controlled territory, liberating small villages along the way and calling in B-52 airstrikes when necessary.

The evasive military tactics and calculated maneuvers are made clear – with New Mexico’s terrain subbing for the harsh landscape of Afghanistan.

The only philosophical insight into the on-going struggle occurs when the American contingent, known as Task Force Dagger, is bluntly told: “You will be cowards if you leave and you will be enemies if you stay.”

Based on Doug Stanton’s based-on-real-events book “Horse Soldiers” (2009), it’s generically and somewhat redundantly adapted by Ted Tally & Peter Craig and directed with mucho machismo as a debut feature by Nicolai Fuglsig, a Danish photojournalist who served as a war correspondent in Kosovo.

FYI: Capt. Mitch Nelson is based on real-life Green Beret Mark Nutsch, and Chris Hemsworth’s real-life wife, Elsa Pataky, plays Nelson’s wife.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “12 Strong” is a ferocious 5, filled with fiery action, procedural frustration and inevitable anguish.

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“Den of Thieves”

Susan Granger’s review of “Den of Thieves” (STX Films)

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Opening with the (unverified) data that Los Angeles is “the bank robbery capital of the world,” there’s also the alarming alert that a heist occurs every 48 minutes.

At the Major Crimes unit of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien (Gerard Butler) is obsessed with these statistics and determined to catch recently paroled Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), whose band of former Marines-turned-bank robbers, known as “The Outlaws,” are planning to rob the downtown branch of the Federal Reserve for $30 million in unmarked bills.

Musing, “We’re dealing with a different animal here,” Big Nick plants a mole within Merrimen’s organization, the hapless young bartender/getaway driver Donnie Wilson (O’Shea Jackson Jr., a.k.a. real-life son of Ice Cube), who, unfortunately, blows his cover at a Japanese hibachi restaurant.

Meanwhile, gang member Enson Levoux (Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent) enlists his Outlaw cohorts to intimidate his daughter’s prom date. And Big Nick routinely cheats on his wife, Debbie (Dawn Olivieri), who walks out on him, taking their two young daughters. Ho hum!

Screenwriter Christian Gudegast makes a less-than-auspicious directorial debut after previously working with brutish Gerard Butler on “London Has Fallen,” perhaps because, in addition to the clichéd dialogue, almost every aspect of his contrived, pointless plot is so obviously influenced by Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Den of Thieves” is a familiar 4, a long, loud, logistical crime caper that curdles.

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Maze Runner: The Death Curse”

Susan Granger’s review of “Maze Runner: The Death Curse” (20th Century-Fox)

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In this epic finale to the YA trilogy, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his buddies have survived a perilous dash through a mysterious labyrinth called The Glade and subsequent trek through a harsh desert wasteland, overseen by a quasi-governmental agency called WCKD (World in Catastrophe: Killerzone Experiment Dept.).

Apparently, they’re immune to the deadly Flare pathogen that has decimated much of the population in this dystopian future.

So WCKD, personified by sinister scientists Ava Page (Patricia Clarkson) and Janson (Aiden Gillen), has captured 28 of the untainted, incarcerating them like human guinea pigs in a laboratory in the shiny metropolis known as The Last City, using their blood to concoct a cure for the viral pandemic.

Although Thomas is torn between two women – turncoat Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and forceful Brenda (Rosa Salazar) – he is particularly concerned with rescuing his comrade Minho (Ki Hong Lee).

To that end, Thomas and his Glader pals Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), along with a battered resistance fighter Lawrence (Walton Groggins), decide to break into the walled fortress, dodging mechanized spiders and evading zombie-like Cranks, revealing a ‘surprise’ character previously presumed dead.

Based on James Dashner’s best-sellers, it’s simplistically adapted by T.S. Nowlin and visual effects supervisor-turned- director Wes Ball, who pay scant attention to character development. Instead, its two-and-a-half hour running time is bloated with visceral, often meaningless chases, shootouts, stunts and action sequences.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Maze Runner: The Death Curse” is a frenzied 5, a finale featuring fearless teenagers who turn out to be the world’s last best hope.

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“Letters from Baghdad”

Susan Granger’s review of “Letters from Baghdad” (Vitagraph Films)

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My best bet this week is this award-winning spy thriller, the timely, true story of intrepid explorer Gertrude Bell (1858-1926), who influenced Middle Eastern history in the early 1900s.

More influential than her colleague T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), adventurous Bell helped map part of the Arabian Peninsula after WWI. She established the Iraq Museum, which housed artifacts and antiquities of Mesopotamia and was ransacked during the American invasion of Baghdad in 2003.

Assembled from period photographs, archival footage and fake ‘talking-head’ interviews by New York documentarians Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, it chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, the daughter of a British baronet who became the first woman to receive highest honors in Modern History at Oxford University.

Superbly narrated by Tilda Swinton from Bell’s own copious correspondence, it follows her solo journey, commanding a 17-camel caravan across the uncharted Arabian desert for 1,500 miles as the first female freelance archaeologist, befriending Bedouins, sheikhs and other tribesmen, learning the local dialects, history and customs.

“I have cut the thread,” Bell wrote. “You will find me a savage, for I have seen and heard strange things and they color the mind.”

Because of her extraordinary knowledge of the Hashemite dynasties and fluency in Arabic, Persian, French, German and English, she was the only woman given diplomatic status at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

That led to Winston Churchill’s invitation to participate in the 1921 Cairo Conference, where Syria’s ruler Faisal was her choice to become King of the newly formed country of Iraq, attempting to encompass Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

“Oil is the trouble, of course,” Bell slyly noted. “Detestable stuff.”

If her exotic saga sounds familiar, perhaps you saw Werner Herzog’s unfortunate “Queen of the Desert” (2015) with Nicole Kidman as Bell.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Letters from Baghdad” is a vividly insightful 7. See it at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10, in Westport Town Hall auditorium. Tickets are $10 to benefit the Westport Cinema Initiative in partnership with Westport READS.

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“The Insult”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Insult” (Cohen Media Group)

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Ziad Doueiri’s intriguing political drama is Lebanon’s submission for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film and winner of the 2017 Venice Film Festival’s Best Actor Award (Kamel El Basha).

In contemporary Beirut, there’s always an undercurrent of tension between Lebanese Christians and Palestinian Muslim refugees. Which is why a casual insult is blown ‘way out of proportion.

When Yasser (Kasmrel El Basha), a Palestinian construction foreman, attempts to repair a broken gutter on a balcony belonging to Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian car mechanic who is watering his flowers, he’s splashed with water.

Then, when Yasser offers to fix an illegal drainpipe, belligerent Tony slams the door in his face, upsetting his very pregnant wife (Rita Hayek). That leads to an insulting vulgarity and Tony’s insistence on an abject apology, which Yasser initially refuses to do.

In reluctant placation, Yasser goes to the garage, just as Tony is listening to Bachir Gemayel’s anti-Palestinian speech. Carried away by the hate-filled verbiage, Tony tells Yasser he wishes Ariel Sharon had “wiped them out,” which incites Yasser to punch Tony, breaking a few of his ribs.

Their feud escalates exponentially until it spirals out of control, becoming a media circus. Eventually, the antagonists are embroiled in a legal showdown.

Tony’s case is ruthlessly fronted by Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salame), an experienced lawyer, while young Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud) righteously mounts Yasser’s defense.

As the drama unfolds, both sides are convincing since there’s enough blame to go ‘round.

In Lebanon, Christians comprise over 40% of the population; many of them bitterly resent the approx. 450,000 Palestinians who have sought refuge there, now comprising more than 10% of the country’s residents.

Co-written by Joelle Tourma and director Ziad Doueiri, the story revolves around the notion of sincerity versus stability, as the underlying sectarian grievances are aired.

In Lebanese with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Insult” is an explosive 8 – a tense courtroom thriller.

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“Proud Mary”

Susan Granger’s review of “Proud Mary” (Sony/Screen Gems)

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Everything old is new again! In the 1970s, the ethnic subgenre of action thrillers, starring black actors, was known as “Blaxpolitation” films. Exemplified by “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones” and “Foxy Brown,” they were originally aimed an urban audiences, but their appeal spread.

Now – with the rise of fighting female characters – Taraji P. Henson (“Hidden Figures,” TV’s “Empire”) takes the titular role as a ruthless African-American assassin who feels guilty about one particular hit for the Boston Mob.

Yet after killing his father, Mary does little to keep orphaned Danny (Jashi Di’Allo Winston) out of trouble – until she discovers him unconscious in an alley. Taking him home, she goes after the culprits who left him there.

That involves Mary’s boss Benny (Danny Glover), his feckless son Tom (Billy Brown) and, above all, her desire to discard the badass lifestyle that she’s sick of.

Working from a simplistic script, cobbled together by Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman and Christian Swegal, director Babak Najafi (“London Has Fallen”) never gets Mary’s Maserati in gear. The pacing’s poor and the lighting’s either too bright or too dark.

Plus, John Fogerty’s adamant that his 1969 hit song with Creedence Clearwater Revival and the title character have nothing in common, noting: “It irks me when people capitalize on the popularity of my music and the good will it has earned for their own financial gain…They simply picked the title and wrote a completely fictitious story around it.”

Fogarty clarified: “I wrote the song about a mythical riverboat, cruising on a mythical river, in a mythical time. It was obviously a metaphor about leaving painful, stressful things behind for a more tranquil and meaningful life…Far from a story about killing people for money.”

FYI: The term “Blaxploitation” was coined by former publicist-turned-Los Angeles’ NAACP head Junius Griffin.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Proud Mary” is an un-focused, faulty 4. Talented Taraji P. Henson deserves a better franchise.

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