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“The Ballad of Lefty Brown”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” (A24)

 

If you yearn for the kind of Western they don’t often make anymore, view this rambling frontier tale, set in Montana in 1889.

It begins on a rain-soaked night as a dying man staggers out of a saloon and collapses on the muddy road. Sheriff Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda) and his trusty, if inept, sidekick Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) quickly corner and catch the culprit, stringing him up on the nearest tree the next morning.

Johnson’s headed for Washington, D.C. as Senator from the newly ratified 41st state. But before he goes, he’s determined to catch rustlers who just stole three of his horses off the back range.

As they ride across the desolate plains, Johnson and Brown are bushwacked, leaving Johnson dead and limping Lefty being blamed by his longtime partner’s widow, Laura (Kathy Baker). She’s fearful that she’ll lose their ranch to some distant male relative because her husband neglected to leave it to her in a Will.

Shortly after Lefty takes off by himself to track down Frank (Joe Anderson), the cold-blooded killer, he joined by teenage Jeremiah (Diego Josef), a gullible, wannabe gunslinger who has read too many dime novels, many incorporating Johnson and Lefty’s fictionalized adventures, and then by hard-drinking U.S. Marshall Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan).

Meanwhile, there’s skullduggery involving scheming Governor Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel), who eagerly envisions the coming of the railroad.

Written and directed by Jared Moshe (“Dead Man’s Burden”), it’s slowly, deliberately paced and splendidly photographed in 35 mm by David McFarland.

Summoning memories of loyal characters played by Walter Brennan and Gabby Hayes, Bill Pullman is about as grizzled as a contentious old coot can be, but he manages to propel the revenge saga to a redemptive conclusion.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” is a satisfying 6, an old-fashioned oater.

06

 

“Molly’s Game”

Susan Granger’s review of “Molly’s Game” (STX Films)

 

Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Miss Sloane”) is sensational as the Colorado-born skier who became America’s poker princess.

After years of training to become world freestyle champion, Molly Bloom (Chastain) tripped on a twig at the Olympic trials, resulting in a severe back injury that curtailed her competitive skiing.

Needing money to attend law school, Molly begins working part-time for a guy who runs a weekly high-stakes poker game in Los Angeles. Although her job pays barely the minimum wage, the players are such big tippers that entrepreneurial Molly, having learned the intricacies of the game, decides to go into business for herself.

Eventually, her multi-million-dollar poker empire expands to Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, where she’s so successful that, instead of exclusive, once-a-week games, she begins to host them every night. That leads to hiring a bevy of glamorous female assistants who can attract even richer gamblers – and a troubling alcohol/drug habit.

Molly’s celebrity clientele includes stockbrokers, hedge fund managers and movie stars; Michael Cera plays a character allegedly based on Tobey Maguire/Ben Affleck.

More than a few men fall in love with her. Easy to understand since elusive Molly is really empathetic with players like “Bad Brad” (Brian D’Arcy James), who has no idea how to bluff yet continually rakes it in, and Harlan (Bill Camp), who sinks deeper and deeper into debt.

Not surprisingly, word reaches the Feds, who bring Molly in on suspicion of colluding with members of the Russian Mafia. That’s when Molly turns to defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).

Making his directorial debut, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “Moneyball,” “Steve Jobs”), adapting Molly Bloom’s 2014 memoir, jumbles the timeline, beginning with Molly’s childhood, then the court case, followed by more backstory revelations.

Sorkin glibly blames Molly’s penchant for self-destructive peccadillos on her incessantly demanding, tough-love psychologist father (Kevin Costner), culminating in a pivotal reconciliation scene in which he supplies “all the answers.”

If you enjoy gambling movies, search out “Rounders” (1998), “Oceans 11” (2001) and “The Sting” (1995).

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Molly’s Game” is a precise, precarious 7, a fast-paced biopic filled with sharp zingers.

07

“The Post”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Post” (20th Century Fox/DreamWorks)

 

Steven Spielberg’s thriller celebrates journalistic independence and courageous Katharine Graham, who put free speech ahead of friendship and business when she battled Richard Nixon’s vindictive White House over publication of what became known as the Pentagon Papers.

When insecure Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) inherited stewardship of the Washington Post after her husband’s suicide, she became the first female publisher of an American newspaper. Back then, the Post was just considered a regional publication.

In 1971, whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a Defense Department analyst, leaks Top Secret information to the New York Times, specifically a RAND Corporation study revealing a massive cover-up about the futility of a war in Vietnam.

Furious over being scooped, crusading Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) senses an opportunity to elevate the Post’s national position when one of his reporters obtains a copy of the controversial study. But irascible Bradlee and his staff have only one day to sort out relevant information that the Times had for months.

Meanwhile, patrician Katharine Graham is preparing to take her family’s cash-poor company public and she knows potential investors might bolt, citing a “catastrophic occurrence,” since she could be arrested and imprisoned for treason.

In addition, Graham has personal reservations, tied to her longtime bond with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), going back to when she and Bradlee socialized with John and Jacqueline Kennedy.

When the New York Times and Washington Post publish the Pentagon Papers, Nixon’s aides seek a court injunction, causing a First Amendment battle that ends up in the Supreme Court.

Scripted by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, it’s sort of a prequel to “All the President’s Men” – as Streep and Hanks deliver powerhouse performances, supported by Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coons, and Bradley Whitford, among others.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Post” is a terrifically timely 10 – with an urgency that reminds us that an assault on freedom of the press is a clear and present threat to American Democracy.

10

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (A24)

 

If you saw the dystopian thriller “The Lobster” (2015), you know that Greek writer/director Yogos Lanthimos makes ethically murky and profoundly disturbing films.

Set to Schubert’s mournful “Stabat Mater,” this ghastly tale of guilt and retribution begins with a close-up, clinical view of open-heart surgery, introducing wealthy, successful Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell).

Steven’s married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist; they have a 14 year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and 12 year-old son Bob (Sunny Suljic).

But the primary object of Steven’s attention is 16 year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan), the creepy son of a patient who died several years ago under his surgical care. It’s obvious that only does Martin hold Steven responsible for the loss of his father but also that the doctor feels morally accountable.

They meet in secret, sharing lunch in a café and strolling by the river. But Martin then unexpectedly shows up at the hospital, forcing Steven to furtively introduce the lad to Matthew (Bill Camp), an anesthesiologist colleague, as Kim’s school friend.

After Steven invites Martin to his suburban home for dinner, Martin politely reciprocates by trying to fix up Steven with his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone).

Eventually, Martin informs Steven that each member of his family will soon suffer a mysterious paralysis, then death, forcing Steven into making a sinister choice, explaining: “It’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.”

Working from an austere script co-written with Efthymis Filippou, Yogos Lanthimos directs his actors to deliver their dialogue in a quietly mannered, even deadpan tone, which is most disconcerting, particularly coupled with Johnnie Burn’s cacophonous sound track.

The title refers to Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis,” which relates the Greek myth of young Iphigenia, who was offered as a sacrifice by her father, King Agamemnon, to placate Artemis after he accidentally killed the goddess’s sacred deer.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a strange, insidiously sadistic 6, inevitably confounding its art-house audience.

06

“Call Me By Your Name”

Susan Granger’s review of “Call Me By Your Name” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Director Luca Guadagnino (“A Bigger Splash”) chronicles the confusing, often conflicting sexual urges and coming-of-age of an introverted adolescent experiencing his first romance.

Set in a picturesque 17th century villa in a small, bucolic town near Lake Garda in northern Italy during the summer of 1983, a dramatic conflict erupts when restless 17 year-old musician Elio (Timothee Chalamet) encounters 24 year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), a visiting American graduate student.

Ostensibly there to help Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an eminent professor of Greco-Roman culture, confident, curious Oliver casually befriends capricious Elio, not realizing that his seductive presence has awakened Elio’s youthful ardor. Although both Elio and Oliver have dalliances with local women, an engaging, erotic, clandestine attraction soon develops between them.

Adapted by James Ivory from Andre Aciman’s 2007 autobiographical novel and sumptuously photographed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, it’s a showcase for Timothee Chalamet, who exhibits heartbreakingly raw awkwardness, coupled with infectious enthusiasm.

Also for 6’5” tall Armie Hammer, who looks like a perfectly proportioned Praxiteles sculpture and is the great grandson of industrialist Armand Hammer; Armie catapulted to fame as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network.”

The third member of the outstanding acting trio is Michael Stuhlbarg, as the understanding, accepting father, who just wants his son to find happiness. He delivers an idyllic, advice-giving speech about tolerance and love that crucially affects the entire scope of the story.

Since it’s obvious that both young men are bisexual, the storyline gives the impression that homosexuality is a choice. That’s a controversial topic because, while many scientists claim that sexual preference is genetically determined, perhaps sexual preference can be changed. And watching this film opens up that discussion.

“We both realized that the story was simultaneously important, fresh, relevant, artistic and out there,” admits Chalamet.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Call Me By Your Name” is a subtly stirring, sensitive 7 – about a sensuous summer that could change the course of a boy’s life.

07

“The Shape of Water”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Shape of Water” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has created a poignant, fantastical fable, set in Baltimore, Maryland, at the height of the Cold War era in 1962.

A lonely, mute janitor, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), discovers an exotic, aquatic Creature from the Black Lagoon, hidden in a cylindrical tank in a high-security government laboratory, run by sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who tortures his amphibian captive with an electric cattle prod.

In the rain forest of South America’s Amazon River, the fish-man (Doug Jones) is a considered a God. Not only can he breathe underwater, utilizing shimmering gills, but also on-land, since he has humanoid lungs. Modeled after Michelangelo’s “David,” he has a perfectly proportioned swimmer’s body – and his touch has remarkable curative powers.

Captured by the military, this mysterious, yet innocent hybrid is being brutalized by so-called scientists who consider him an oceanographic ‘asset’ that can give America a supernatural advantage over the perceived Communist threat.

Secretly sharing her hard-boiled eggs, Elisa feels empathy for the Creature with whom she communicates in sign language. Because of her inability to speak, Elisa is regarded as “incomplete,” less than fully human. Since both Elisa and the Creature can hear, they share a love of jazz music and a deep, intuitive bond.

With the help of a co-worker (Octavia Spencer), a sympathetic scientist/spy (Michael Stuhlbarg), and an artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins), Elisa is determined to set him free.

Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) delves into the erotically charged romanticism that often pervades the darkly bewitched monsters in the classic horror genre, like “Beauty and the Beast.” Only in this thriller, they’re on equal terms. He calls it “a fairy tale for trouble times” and an “antidote to now.”

“Everything is so sordid and horrible right now,” he told ‘Variety,’ “but this movie is not shy about talking about love and beauty and the good things in life.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Shape of Water” is a sensuous, sumptuous 10, an enchanting, redemptive, interspecies love story.

10

“Just Getting Started”

Susan Granger’s review of “Just Getting Started” (Broad Green Pictures)

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The problem with the senior-centric “Just Getting Started” is that it never really gets going!

Although septuagenarian writer/director Ron Shelton has churned out hits like “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup,” he stalled out with this tepid, wannabe Christmas comedy.

It begins as a Mob wife (Jane Seymour), under house arrest, spots a familiar face (Morgan Freeman) on a TV ad for Villa Capri, a luxury Palm Springs retirement resort. Seeking revenge, she dispatches her son to bump him off. Apparently, he was an F.B.I. informant who assumed the identity of ‘Duke Driver’ in the ‘witness protection’ program.

As the Villa Capri’s charming manager, roguish Driver rules the roost, surrounded by hens (Glenne Headly, Elizabeth Ashley, Sheryl Lee Ralph) who are eager to share his nest when he’s not poker partying with his pals (Joe Pantoliano, comedian George Wallace).

Shenanigans commence when prickly newcomer Leo McKay (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives, challenging Driver’s supremacy on all fronts, while flirting with Suzie (Rene Russo), who was dispatched from corporate headquarters to audit the books and fire Driver.

As a native of Los Angeles, I relished Driver’s equanimity regarding warm weather at Christmas: “Well, Bethlehem is exactly the same latitude as Southern California, so probably the original Christmas was more like Palm Springs.” Which is actually true. Song-writer Irving Berlin and greeting card marketers are the ones who created snowy scenes for Christmas.

Garrulous Morgan Freeman and taciturn Tommy Lee Jones, who has a dry sense of humor, had never worked together before, and their chemistry clicks. Too bad they didn’t have better material.

FYI: Although there are some Palm Springs background shots, filming took place at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, New Mexico – for tax reasons. And before taking lessons for this movie, Tommy Lee Jones had never played golf, noting: “I can hit the ball a long way, but I don’t always know where it’s going to come down.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Just Getting Started” is an unfunny 5. It’s seasonal sludge.

05

“Coco”

Susan Granger’s review of “Coco” (Disney/Pixar)

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Pixar Animation is known as “family-friendly” – and none more than their 19th feature, a fantasy that faithfully depicts Mexican culture, celebrates the Hispanic customs and folklore of Dia de los Muertos, and acknowledges cultural icons like Frida Kahlo and El Santo.

In the tiny Mexican town of Santa Cecilia, the Rivera family has been making shoes for several generations, and 12 year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzales) is expected to continue the family tradition.

Years ago, as the story goes, Miguel’s great-great grandfather, a musician, deserted the family, leaving his beloved great-great grandmother Coco to raise their family alone. Ever since, the Riveras have had an aversion to music.

Problem is: Miguel loves music and has taught himself to play the guitar, studying the work of a local singing legend, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

On the national holiday known as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which joyously honors the memory of one’s ancestors, Miguel is determined to perform at the fiesta’s annual talent show in the mariachi plaza.

When his abuelita (grandmother) smashes his guitar, rebellious Miguel sneaks into Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum and steals his idol’s prized instrument, unleashing a curse that catapults him to the Land of the Dead, where he must seek a family member’s blessing in order to return home.

The Land of the Dead is a brightly-colored netherworld of whimsically clattering skeletons, luminescent winged spirits, sparkling marigold petals, and long-buried family secrets. That’s where Miguel meets forlorn Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who claims to have known Ernesto de la Cruz, whom Miguel now believes was his great-great grandfather.

Co-directed by Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and Mexican-American Adrian Molina, it delivers both dazzling visuals and an emotional catharsis, utilizing an all-Latino vocal cast that includes Mexican stars Alfonso Arau and Selene Luna.

And the song “Remember Me” by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (“Frozen”) still reverberates.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Coco” is a poignant 8, strumming the heartstrings. Eso!

08

“Wonder Wheel”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wonder Wheel” (Amazon Studios)

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Woody Allen’s new film returns to the signature giant blue Ferris wheel that looms over Coney Island’s amusement park, recalling his youth, back in the 1950s.

Morose, melancholy, migraine headache-plagued Ginny (Kate Winslet), a former actress, works as a waitress at Ruby’s Clam House. Approaching her 40th birthday, she unhappily married to oafish, volatile carousel-operator Humpty (Jim Belushi), whose long-estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) suddenly shows up on their doorstep.

Fleeing from her gangster husband and his crime-syndicate cohorts after squealing to the F.B.I., penniless, on-the-lam Carolina has nowhere else to go. “I know where all the bodies are buried,” she explains.

And none of this sits well with Ginny’s preteen pyromaniac son, Richie (Jack Gore), from her first marriage to the jazz drummer whom she recklessly betrayed.

Not surprisingly, having her nubile 26 year-old stepdaughter around interferes with Ginny’s adulterous affair with seductive Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), the local lifeguard who commutes from his pad in Greenwich Village and dreams of becoming a major playwright, like Eugene O’Neill.

Too bad that Timberlake hasn’t developed the acting chops to tackle this kind of complicated, multi-layered role, serving – as many others have – as Allen’s talking-into-the-camera alter-ego.

What Allen excels at is capturing Brooklyn’s orange-hued Coney Island atmosphere, sharing credit with cinematographer Vittorio Stonaro and production designer Santo Loquasto, who use innovative lighting and camera angles to resurrect the bustling boardwalk of years past.

And Allen subtly scores by casting “Sopranos” veterans Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa as the menacing goons on Carolina’s tail.

FYI: The cast and crew moved to Staten Island to film scenes that take supposedly place under the boardwalk since that space no longer exists; it was filled with sand after Hurricane Sandy.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wonder Wheel” is a simmering, yet stilted 6, filled with bittersweet nostalgia and a terrific soundtrack.

06

“Mudbound”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mudbound” (Netflix)

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In this timeless and timely epic melodrama, two families – one black and one white – bound together by the desolate Mississippi Delta farmland, reflect Jim Crow racism in the 1940s American South.

The Jacksons are a close-knit African-American family of poor, sharecropping tenants, living next to Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Henry (Jason Clarke) McAllan,  the ambitious, yet incompetent new land owners who just moved from Memphis, Tennessee, with their two young daughters and Henry’s vile, ornery Pappy (Jonathan Banks).

Unprepared for the squalor and primitive harshness of rural life, along with the incessant rainfall, the McAllans are struggling to survive, something they can only do with the help of Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Hap (Rob Morgan) Jackson.

As stoic Florence says when she’s summoned from caring for her injured husband to tend Laura’s sick children: “Love is a kind of survival.”

The plot pivots on the uneasy friendship forged between Florence’s eldest son and Laura’s roguish brother-in-law, both W.W.II combat veterans. While fighting in Europe under Gen. Patton, Sgt. Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) experienced freedom and respect for the first time, falling in love with a Caucasian woman, while Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), a fighter pilot, drowns his PTSD in whiskey.

Their natural camaraderie breaks the rules about racial separation, which infuriates Henry’s sinister, virulently prejudiced Pappy.

Based on Hillary Jordan’s somewhat autobiographical 2008 best-seller, it’s adapted by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees, utilizing a parallel subplot structure that alternates among six points-of-view on race and class, augmented by Rachel Morrison’s sublime cinematography and Tamar-kali’s effective musical score.

Insofar as ‘white privilege’ is concerned, Dee Rees notes, “Unless you investigate what you inherit in terms of ideas, attitudes and thoughts about the world, how can you be mindful about what you’re passing on?”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mudbound” is an unflinching, admirable 8, particularly relevant now that white supremacy is back in the forefront of public consciousness.

08