"
"

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (Sony Pictures Classics

 

The takeaway thought from this less-than-memorable biopic is that one highly-principled person can make a big difference…and many Americans are hoping that another steps forth soon.

The whistleblower is Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), who for many years was a trusted confidante and second-in-line to the F.B.I.’s Director J. Edgar Hoover.

As it begins, Felt is summoned by Richard Nixon’s aides and asked how the President can fire Hoover. Tersely wording his reply, Felt tells them that every tidbit of gossip and information that comes to the Bureau – like who’s seen with a woman who is not his wife  or another man – is duly recorded and kept in Hoover’s personal files, concluding: “All your secrets are safe with us.”

Oozing with righteous indignation, Felt claims the F.B.I. is “the most respected institution in the world,” operating independently without any interference from anyone, including the White House and Department of Justice.

When Hoover suddenly dies, instead of promoting Felt, Nixon appoints an outsider with no law-enforcement experience, his crony L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), much to the dismay of Felt and his frustrated wife, Audrey (Diane Lane).

When the 1972 Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee occurs, Gray minimizes its importance, giving Felt and his team only 48 hours before closing the case. Thankfully, Felt continues to investigate, communicating his suspicions to Time magazine’s Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward (Julian Morris), becoming the elusive tipster known as Deep Throat.

Based on books by Felt and John D. O’Connor, it’s superficially scripted by writer/director Peter Landesman (“Concussion”), who completely fails to capture the compelling drama of “All the President’s Men” (1977).  And the counterculture Weather Underground subplot, involving Felt’s daughter goes nowhere.

Liam Neeson’s stoic performance is staunchly supported by John Lucas, Michael C. Hall, Tony Goldwyn, Brian d’Arcy James, Eddie Marsan, Tom Sizemore, Ike Barinholtz and Kate Walsh.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a fizzled 5, political deception resigned to failure.

05

“Daddy’s Home 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Daddy’s Home 2” (Paramount Pictures)

daddys

Picking up on where the 2015 comedy left off, the dueling daddies – macho Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg), ex-husband of Sara (Linda Cardellini), and her new husband, manchild Brad Whitaker (Will Ferrell) – have become close friends, cordially sharing custody of Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez).

Dusty is now married to Karen (model Alessandra Ambrosio), becoming stepfather to Adrianna (Didi Costine), Karen’s daughter with Roger (John Cena). Got that straight?

Instead to shuttling the kids back and forth, they’ve decided to celebrate Christmas together. Which sounds wonderful until Dusty’s misogynistic dad, Kurt (Mel Gibson), decides to visit and Brad’s dad, Don (John Lithgow), shows up alone, explaining that Brad’s mother is tending a sick relative.

Seeds of discontent are sown as soon as homophobic Kurt spies sensitive Brad kissing his effete dad “hello” at the airport. By the time they do their third liplock, the gag has gone beyond stale.

Deciding to take the whole family out of town for the holidays, Kurt rents an Airbnb cabin in the mountains so they can enjoy the snow and play with loaded guns. What could go wrong?

Sloppily scripted by John Morris (“We’re the Millers”) and director Sean Anders (“Horrible Bosses 2”), the episodic, dysfunctional family plot and subsequent chaos bears an uncanny resemblance to “A Bad Mom Christmas” – with a gender reversal. Ho-ho-humbug.

When casting was completed many months ago, it may have seemed like a good idea to make bad-boy Mel Gibson a crass, cynical, sexist, former astronaut but, since Hollywood’s now beseiged by sexual harassment and assault scandals, he comes across as simply repugnant.

Back in 2006, Gibson made headlines with an anti-Semitic rant during a second DUI arrest and, in 2011, pleaded no contest to battery against a girlfriend. So it’s not amusing when Kurt regales his grandchildren: “Hey, kids, I’ve got one for you…Two dead hookers wash up on the shore…”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Daddy’s Home 2” is a mean-spirited, toxic 2. It’s dismal.

02

“LBJ”

Susan Granger’s review of “LBJ” (Electric Entertainment)

lbj-banner

There’s no question that Lyndon Baines Johnson had his eye on the White House during his tenure as Senate Majority Leader. But being a good poker player and canny pragmatist, he knew when to ‘hold ‘em’ and when to ‘fold ‘em,’ which is why he agreed to run as John F. Kennedy’s Vice-President after failing to get the 1960 Democratic nomination for himself.

“Lyndon, you have more experience and more talent and more wisdom,” Kennedy admits. “Unfortunately, this is politics and none of that matters.”

This historical biopic begins in Texas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) is assassinated and Johnson (Woody Harrelson), with his supportive wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at his side, is suddenly thrust into the Oval Office, much to the disgust of his longtime adversary Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David).

The racist Southern caucus, led by Georgia’s venomous Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), assumes that LBJ will torpedo Kennedy’s contentious Civil Rights Act, only to discover that, as the new President, LBJ is determined to solidify Kennedy’s legacy by championing the causes on which he won the election.

As Johnson cynically puts it: while charismatic Kennedy was the “show horse,” he’s the “work horse.” Under LBJ’s leadership, the progressive Medicare, Medicad and Head Start programs were implemented.

Scripted by first-time screenwriter Joey Hartstone and directed by Rob Reiner, it’s not only underdeveloped, even contrived at times, but also weighed down by a jumbled, non-linear time frame that turns out to be a major distraction. And Johnson’s fatal escalation of the United States’ involvement the Vietnam War is barely mentioned.

Wearing a toupee, prosthetics, horn-rimmed glasses and platform shoes, Woody Harrelson delivers a powerhouse performance, but he never quite captures LBJ’s ability to intimidate his adversaries.

The 36th President has already been portrayed by Liev Schreiber (“The Butler”), Tom Wilkinson (“Selma”) John Carroll Lynch (“Jackie”) and Bryan Cranston (“All the Way”). And since historian Robert Caro is still working on his multi-volume biography, more actors will inevitably play LBJ in the future.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “LBJ” is a straightforward 6, a solid political drama.

06

“Novitiate”

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

Novitiate

Spearheaded by Pope John XXIII in 1962, the Second Vatican Council brought liberalizing changes to the Roman Catholic Church, causing a radical theological shift.

Opening with shy, 17 year-old Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) noting, “People never understand why I want to give it all away to God,” this is the story of a young woman’s religious fervor and subsequent questioning of her faith and vocation.

Raised by a single mother (Julianne Nicholson) in a non-religious household, Cathleen is given a scholarship to a nearby parochial school, where she learns about Catholicism. One day, while sitting in the quiet chapel, she feels the presence of God.

Ignoring her mother’s “There’s more to life than God and church and praying,” she enters a cloistered convent, Sisters of the Blessed Rose, as a postulant. The stern Mother Superior (Melissa Leo) introduces herself as “God’s representative on Earth.”

Firmly declaring that “God is not a fantasy, nor a daydream, and not your invisible friend,” she alone will decide over the coming months whether the young women are worthy of continuing their Holy commitment.

Admitting she was dazzled by Audrey Hepburn in “A Nun’s Story,” it’s obvious that one (Maddie Hasson) won’t last long. But pious Cathleen seems determined to survive the rigorous self-restraint and, ultimately, become a bride of Christ, taking final vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

Writer/director Maggie Betts pulls back the curtain on the secrecy of convent life, revealing the mental and physical hardships the women endure, paying particular attention to the melodramatic sadism of Mother Superior, who initially refuses to abandon the draconian discipline (like self-flagellation) she’s observed for 40 years.

The anguish of Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) is riveting, and Melissa Leo delivers a powerhouse performance. (Leo used the white jersey shawl she had been given after she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Fighter” to drape, backwards and frontwards, as her character’s wimple.)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Novitiate” is a solemn, soulful 6, concluding with the challenging revelation that 90,000 nuns have since left convents, renouncing their vows.

06

“Goodbye Christopher Robin”

Susan Granger’s review of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Goodbye-Christopher-Robin-Poster

This is the intriguing ‘backstory’ about the creation of one of literature’s most beloved children’s tales.

Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) was best known as a successful British playwright, churning out witty West End comedies. But, in 1919, after he returned from fighting on the Western Front during W.W.I, he was shell-shocked and depressed, suffering from what we now know as PTSD.

Impatient with her husband’s inability to resume writing, Milne’s self-centered, socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), reluctantly agrees to move to Sussex with him and their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston).

Morose Milne rarely spends time with the cherubic boy until Daphne takes off for London and Christopher’s devoted nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) leaves to tend her dying mother.

Suddenly, Milne finds himself alone with Christopher, nicknamed Billy Moon. When they stroll through Ashdown Forest, Billy always brings his beloved bear; at home, he enjoys tea parties with his fanciful collection of other stuffed animals.

Observing this interaction, Milne begins writing whimsical, gently rhyming tales about the bucolic adventures of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger and Piglet in the mythical Hundred Acre Wood, collaborating with fellow veteran/illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The instant – and overwhelming – success of “Winnie-the-Pooh” transforms Christopher into a reluctant superstar, forced to do interviews, participate in photo ops and greet the adoring public.

Growing into manhood, Billy (Alex Lawther) becomes deeply resentful that his childhood was sacrificed for fame and fortune. In “The Enchanted Places, Beyond the World of Pooh” and “The Hollow on the Hill,” he wrote: “It seemed to me almost that my father had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and left me nothing but empty fame.”

Utilizing Ann Thwaite’s 1990 biography of A.A. Milne, along with Christopher Milne’s memoirs, screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughn, working with director Simon Curtis (“Woman in Gold,” “My Week With Marilyn”), have fashioned a rather contrived, somewhat uneven, cautionary tale for parents.

Curtis confesses a fascination with the downside of celebrity, which most people don’t like to acknowledge: “It’s about showing the unwelcome side of fame. What interests me is going behind the curtain of iconic stories to find the truth.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a charming, bittersweet, yet stumbling 7. Who knew?

07

 

“Wonderstruck”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wonderstruck” (Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions)

 psdwonderstruckaffiche

Beginning with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” – this is the visually captivating story of two curious 12 year-olds – a half-century apart – who run away to New York City to find answers to elusive questions about their past.

In 1927 in Hoboken, New Jersey, lonely Rose (Milllicent Simmonds) lives with her strict father (James Urbaniak). She’s deaf, and her great joy is going to the movies to see her silent-screen idol, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who is now starring on Broadway and whom she thinks is her mother. Her story is evocatively told in stylized black-and-white with no spoken dialogue.

In 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota (in vibrant color), Ben (Oakes Fegley) is mourning the death of his single mother, a librarian named Elaine (Michelle Williams), when he finds an old bookmark from Kincaid Books in Manhattan with the note, “Elaine, I’ll wait for you. Love, Danny.” Just then, he’s struck by lightning, which leaves him deaf but, nevertheless, determined to find the man who may be his father.

As the puzzling plot unfolds, their parallel lives are bound to intersect. But how?

Collaborating with novelist/illustrator/screenwriter Brian Selznick, cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, costumer Sandy Powell and composer Carter Burwell, director Todd Haynes (“Carol”) cleverly cuts between Rose and Ben, each on a mission they are unable to articulate.

Somehow, they find their way to the wildlife dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, where Ben meets mischievous Jamie (Jaden Michael), and Rose finds her older brother Walter (Cary Michael Smith).

The connective threads emanate from the historical tradition called Cabinets of Wonder, where ingenious individuals would display their exotic collections.

Adding to the remarkable authenticity of this childhood fantasy, newcomer Millicent Simmonds is deaf in real life, working with other hearing-impaired actors who communicate through their facial expressions, gestures and physicality.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “Wonderstruck” is an enthralling 8, weaving a cosmic web of whimsical enchantment.

08

 

 

“Murder on the Orient Express”

Susan Granger’s review of “Murder on the Orient Express” (20th Century Fox)

 orient

Kenneth Branagh’s remake derails almost from the get-go, long before the snow-bound, stranded strangers begin to suspect one another of murder.

Prior to the steam-engine chugging out of the station in the mid-1930s, we’re introduced to Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) with his ridiculous, salt ‘n’ peppery mustache. Author Agatha Christie described Poirot’s facial adornment as having a “tortured splendor,” part of what throws and provokes people. Throughout the film, it’s a major distraction.

Shortly after leaving Istanbul, the corpse of Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an American art dealer, is found in his berth with multiple stab wounds. And the culprit is obviously still aboard.

While an avalanche forces the legendary luxury train to stop on a particularly precarious trestle, Poirot interviews all the passengers with access to Ratchett’s compartment.

There’s Rastchett’s assistant (Josh Gad) and valet (Derek Jacobi), the Doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), the Widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Missionary (Penelope Cruz), the Governess (Daisy Ridley), the Professor (Willem Dafoe), and the Princess (Judi Dench), traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman).

Back in 1974, director Sidney Lumet cast Albert Finney as Poirot, assembling an all-star cast that included Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

In this new version, screenwriter Michael Green has made few changes, the most obvious being a new opening scene in Jerusalem, introducing idiosyncratic Poirot, obsessing over two perfectly balanced soft-boiled eggs, and reconfiguring Dr. Arbuthnot as African-American.

But the connection remains the same: all the passengers had reason to loathe Ratchett, the gangster who kidnapped and killed three year-old Daisy Armstrong – a pivotal plot point that Agatha Christie lifted from the 1932 abduction of Anne and Charles Lindbergh’s baby.

Perhaps the most obvious problem in this remake is Kenneth Branagh’s self-indulgent casting of himself as prissy Poirot and his increasingly annoying overhead shots.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a tiresome, forlorn 5, a forgettable whodunit.

05

“A Bad Moms Christmas”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Bad Moms Christmas” (STX Films)

badmoms

This shoddy, superfluous sequel begins with newly divorced Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) sitting on her stairs on Christmas Eve, viewing the wreckage that is her home, wondering what went wrong – as a camel wanders by.

“This year I ruined Christmas,” she wails. “I literally feel like the worst mom in the world.”

Flashback a few weeks, as Amy and her friends – chipper Kiki (Kristen Bell) and crass Carla (Kathryn Hahn) – were contemplating the chaos of the upcoming holiday season, feeling overworked and underappreciated.

Their angst is amplified when their respective ‘bad’ moms unexpectedly show up.  Amy’s mom is domineering, demanding Ruth (Christine Baranski). Kiki’s mom is sugary-sweet, yet suffocating Sandy (Cheryl Hines). And Carla’s mom is Isis (Susan Sarandon), a pot-smoking, hedonistic gambler who has dropped by to borrow money.

While the original “Bad Moms” (2016) delivered some disarmingly raunchy guffaws, this superficial exploration of complicated mother/daughter dynamics disappoints. Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, it’s neither insightful nor amusing.

Indeed, it’s embarrassingly vulgar, particularly when blowsy beautician Carla rhapsodizes about waxing the private parts of a male stripper (Justin Hartley) who’s tired of women craving him for his bodacious bod, only to discover that Isis is ready to rock ‘n’ roll with this sexy Santa who happens to be her daughter’s date.

To be fair, there’s a slyly comical scene in which Kiki and Sandy consult a therapist (Wanda Sykes) about establishing ‘boundaries,’ and Ruth’s mind-boggling, Yuletide extravagance, involving live partridges and the Chicago youth choir.

While skilled comediennes like Kathryn Hahn and Christine Baranski make the best of the stressed-out situation, it’s a shame they’re given such sloppy material to work with. There’s no sisterhood, none of the disarming female bonding that characterized their previous comedy.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Bad Moms Christmas” is a frazzled 4, like trashy tinsel.

04

“Thor: Ragnarock”

Susan Granger’s review of “Thor: Ragnarok” (Marvel Studios/Disney)

thor

For comic-book fans, Marvel’s hammer-throwing hero is back – in the BEST Thor movie yet!

Since “Ragnarok” means apocalypse, the story picks up where the last one left off: Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, is trying to save Asgard, his home planet, only to discover that he and his treacherous brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston) have a power-hungry older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), Goddess of Death.

After tracking down their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who is determined to die in his native Norway, the challenge facing Thor and Loki is reclaiming Asgard from Hela, who once led Asgad’s armies for Odin. At their first meeting, Hela shows her supremacy by smashing Thor’s hammer.

Travelling through a space portal, hammerless Thor is then captured and imprisoned on a parallel world called Sakaar. That’s where he meets the demented, flamboyant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the hard-drinking warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and a cheery, giant rock golem named Korg (Taika Waititi).

Since high-stakes gladiator matches are the Grandmaster’s passion, Thor’s long, blond locks are trimmed before he finds himself in the ring, facing “a friend from work” who turns out to be The Incredible Hulk, another key member of the Avengers.

After they do battle, Thor recruits Hulk and his alter-ego, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to take on Hela, a formidable opponent – with antlered battle headgear covering her jet-black hair.

Adroitly helmed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi, it’s irreverently scripted by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, revealing Chris Hemsworth’s surprising flair for physical comedy, making Thor more natural and appealing than he’s been in the past.

As for cameos: In a zany, identity-confusion ‘play’ at the very beginning, Matt Damon impersonates Loki, Sam Neill mimics Odin with Chris Hemsworth’s brother Liam as a fake Thor – plus, later, Benedict Cumberbatch pops up as Dr. Strange.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Thor: Ragnarok” is a silly, superhero 7. It’s thunderful!

07

“All I See Is You”

Susan Granger’s review of “All I See Is You” (Open Road)

allisee

The concept of blindness has resulted in some fascinating films, starting with Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” in 1931, followed by “A Patch of Blue,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Wait Until Dark” and “Scent of a Woman” and “Ray” – to name a few. Unfortunately, “All I See Is You” isn’t one of them.

Set in Bangkok. Thailand, this psychodrama revolves around Gina (Blake Lively), who is legally blind, and her husband James (Jason Clarke). After visiting an ophthalmologist (Danny Huston), Gina undergoes a corneal transplant to restore sight to her right eye after her vision was damaged in an automobile accident many years earlier.

As Gina begins to perceive the world around her more clearly, she recognizes that not only is their apartment a disappointment but so is her husband. When they go to Barcelona to visit Gina’s sister Carla (Ahna O’Reilly) and her artist husband Ramon (Miquel Fernandez), who take them to a grotesquely garish peep show, Gina also realizes that certain aspects of her sexuality are unfulfilled.

Once they get back to Bangkok, Gina’s increasing dissatisfaction with their apartment results in Jason’s agreeing to buy a house, one that can accommodate a child. And her distress about not getting pregnant is relieved after an encounter with a hunky Daniel (Wes Chatham), whom she recognizes as a fellow swimmer from the gym.

Of course, the fact that increasingly insecure James was told by another specialist that his sperm were not viable complicates matters – along with mysterious difficulties involving Gina’s steroid eye drops.

Working from a weak script he wrote with Sean Conway, director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “World War Z”) flounders, while Blake Lively’s limited acting range is disappointing.  The most memorable scene chronicles Gina’s visit to Bangkok’s famed flower market when she first begins to recognize colors.

In retrospect, Lively was far more effective in the terror thriller “The Shallows,” “The Age of Adaline” and TV’s “Gossip Girl.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “All I See Is You” is a tepid 3 – with an absurd conclusion.

03