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“If Only…a Love Story”

Susan Granger’s review of “If Only… a Love Story” (Cherry Lane Theatre/Off-Broadway)

 

Set in 1901, Thomas Klingenstein’s historical drama riffs on the “What If” supposition, pivoting on what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated.

Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) met Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) 36 years earlier, when she was a Manhattan socialite and he was a well-educated former slave.

During the Civil War, young Ann, who was an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, worked as a nurse. When she begged Lincoln for fresh milk for the soldiers, he arranged it. In return, the President asked her to visit Samuel, a wounded Union soldier from the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, known as the ‘first colored Infantry.’

That’s how they met, but it was an era when any sort of romantic relationship between them was unthinkable.

“Mr. Abraham Lincoln was our match-maker,” Samuel recalls, when they see each other again.

What follows is an 80-minute conversation between them, delving not only into how their respective lives might have been different if Lincoln had lived but also how the country might have changed.

Ann’s wealthy businessman husband Henry (Richmond Hoxie) has gone out for the evening, leaving Ann with Sophie (Korinne Tetlow), their adopted six year-old who has been mute since she saw her parents killed by a runaway horse-and-carriage. The play is bookended by Ann reading to Sophie.

Like his previous work, “Douglass,” revolving around the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, playwright Thomas Klingenstein evokes the era of slavery, abolitionists and racial privilege. The characters are fictitious, although Lincoln did have a black valet, William H. Johnson.

Although she’s still best-known for TV’s “Little House on the Prairie,” Melissa Gilbert has done a creditable amount of stage work and knows how to use her voice to manipulate an audience. Complementing her, Mark Kenneth Smaltz has a captivating presence.

But Christopher McElroen’s sedentary staging stultifies, rather than enliven, the conversation between Ann and Samuel. By placing them in armchairs facing each other, McEloen forces the audience to watch them in profile, and it’s not much help when he has them exchange seats.

William Boles’ Victorian parlor design, Becca Jefford’s gaslight lighting and Kimberly Manning’s period costumes add authenticity.

“If Only…a Love Story” plays through Sept. 17, 2017, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street in Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-989-2020 or www.cherrylanetheatre.org

 

 

 

“It”

Susan Granger’s review of “It” (New Line Cinema/Warner Bros.)

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After the film industry’s weakest Labor Day weekend ever, the release of this new Stephen King-based thriller made the box-office sizzle, more than doubling the record set by “Hannibal” for the biggest horror movie opening of all-time.

Helmed by Argentinean director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”), it relates Chapter One of a story about a demonic clown that starts in 1989 in Derry, Maine, and will, eventually, end in the present day.

The terrifying tale begins with the disappearance of six year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), who vanishes down a storm drain in a town that has a missing-persons rate six times the national average. It’s where “Nightmare on Elm Street 5” is playing at the local theater and, behind closed doors, psychological, sexual and physical abuse run rampant.

Searching for Georgie are his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his misfit middle-school pals who call themselves the Losers Club.

Stereotypically, there’s chubby newcomer Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); African-American Mike (Chosen Jacobs); Jewish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), smart-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the self-sufficient girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis).

Every adolescent story has a bully, like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). But the real evil is a child-eating monster known as Pennywise (Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan), a shape-shifting demon who can assume the nightmarish appearance of whatever is most frightening to his victim.

Scripted by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga, it’s the second adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. (Tim Curry played malevolent Pennywise in Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 TV mini-series.) And kudos to Chung Chung-hoon’s engrossing cinematography.

Plus it’s timely, since audiences have been primed by Netflix’s nostalgic hit “Stranger Things,” also starring Fi

nn Wolfhard. Its creators Matt and Ross Duffer cite King’s novel as their show’s inspiration.

FYI: If this sounds like a drug trip, it was. Stephen King confessed that he was high on cocaine and liquor when he wrote it, later claiming to have been sober no more than three hours a day back then.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “It” is a scary, supernatural 7 – with Chapter Two coming next.

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“Year by the Sea”

Susan Granger’s review of “Year by the Sea”

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Based on Joan Anderson’s New York Times best-selling memoir, filmmaker Alexander Janko has made one of those rare, feel-good films that celebrates middle-aged women.

At her son’s wedding reception, Joan (Karen Allen) learns that her husband’s New York office is moving to Wichita, Kansas, and she’s expected to go along with the unexpected relocation.

Since her 30-year marriage to Robin (Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer) has gone stale, Joan decides, instead, to go to off-season Cape Cod to rediscover herself and redefine her life. She’s a writer, so maybe she can find inspiration there.

To her initial dismay, Joan discovers that the rustic cottage that she rented – sight unseen – is a bit off-shore, requiring her to learn to navigate a rowboat.

The next morning, she meets a woman, also named Joan (Celia Imrie), who’s ecstatically dancing on the beach. She’s the wife of pioneering psychologist Erik Erikson (Alvin Epstein), who coined the term “identity crisis.” This free-spirited, new friend becomes her mentor, guiding her gradual, restorative transformation.

Plus there’s hunky clam-digger John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), who not only takes her out on his fishing boat, aptly dubbed Seal Woman, so she can view seals cavorting on a sand bar, but also offers her a job at his fish market.

Joan’s other acquaintances include long-suffering Luce (Monique Gabriela Cuman), who runs the coastal coffee shop, and her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend, Billy (Kohler McKenzie). Plus there’s the continual support of Joan’s literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson).

“I feel a bit like a boat – adrift – with nothing to steady me,” she explains.

Composer Alexander Janko (“Anastasia,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) makes his writer/director debut with this gentle, cliché-riddled, anecdotal melodrama, picturesquely filmed by Bryan Papierski in Chatham, Orleans and Wellfleet in Massachusetts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Year by the Sea” is a subtly sincere, if soggy 6. If you liked “Eat Pray Love,” “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “45 Years,” you’ll enjoy this.

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“Home Again”

Susan Granger’s review of “Home Again” (Open Road Pictures)

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Nepotism has run rampant in Hollywood’s movie industry from the time of its inception, when dozens of relatives of moguls Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor were on the Universal and Paramount payrolls.

So writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer has a prime Hollywood pedigree as daughter of producer/director/writer Nancy Meyers (“The Intern,” “It’s Complicated”) and producer/director/writer Charles Shyer (“Baby Boom,” “Father of the Bride”).

Ms. Shyer launches her career with this character-driven romantic comedy, focusing on Alice (Reese Witherspoon), who has just separated from her workaholic Manhattan-based, music-producer husband Austen (Martin Sheen) and moved to Los Angeles, where her deceased Oscar-winning director/father left her a sprawling Spanish mansion.

As Alice is celebrating her 40th birthday, she’s picked up by 27 year-old Harry (Pico Alexander), an aspiring filmmaker who just happens to be looking for a place to live – with his ambitious moviemaking pals/partners: Teddy (Nat Wolff) and George (Jon Rudnitsky).

Flattered that the young men recognize her as a former cinema siren and charmed by their passion for films, Alice’s mother Lillian (Candice Bergen) suggests they bunk in the luxurious guest cottage. Convenient!

Plus, Alice’s adorably precocious young daughters – Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) – adore the blandly amiable, energetic guys who soon become intricately involved in their lives.

Soon Alice discovers that it’s nice to have millennials around the house, like having 24/7-computer tech service, live-in babysitters and sex with someone who’s 13 years younger.

Meanwhile in a silly subplot, Alice’s attempt to launch a new career as a freelance interior decorator is being torpedoed by Zoey (Lake Bell), an obnoxious, self-involved socialite.

Although there are contrivances galore and the less-than-compelling conflict could get lost in a cone of cotton candy, it’s a superficially amusing diversion, particularly when Reese Witherspoon and Candice Bergen display their adroit comic timing.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Home Again” is an implausibly sparkly 6, a fun chick-flick.

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“Tulip Fever”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tulip Fever” (The Weinstein Company/Paramount Pictures)

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Filmed in 2014, then shelved, this costume drama fails on almost all levels, despite a prestigious cast that includes three Oscar-winners: Christoph Waltz, Alicia Vikander and Judi Dench.

So what went wrong?

Supposedly based on a true story, the romance revolves around Sophia (Vikander), an orphan raised in a convent where the feisty Abbess (Dench) arranges her marriage to elderly widower Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz), a wealthy merchant who desperately wants an heir.

As time goes by, Sophia is unable to get pregnant. So when vain Cornelis hires aspiring artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) to paint a portrait of him and his lovely ‘trophy’ wife, Sophia and Jan fall in love.

Complications arise when Sophia’s saucy servant Maria (Holliday Grainger) becomes pregnant by the fishmonger Willem (Jack O’Connell), threatening to blackmail Sophia by revealing her adulterous trysts.

What’s galling is that this inane soap opera is set in 17th century Amsterdam, where a commodities exchange once revolved around exotic tulip bulbs, the most prized being the mutants with irregularly striped petals. Fortunes were made and lost in “Tulip Mania.”  That’s where the real drama takes place.

According to Skidmore Professor Mehmet Odekon’s financial encyclopedia “Booms and Busts,” this was the first significant, speculative ‘bubble’ in European financial history, damaging the Dutch economy for many years.

Despite elegant efforts from cinematographer Eigil Bryld and production designer Simon Elliott, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) fails to capture the blooming fervor of this historic context, relegating it to background.

Worse yet, he’s unable to generate heat among the three principals, ceding all sexual tension to the supporting players – with Jan’s drunken pal Gerrit (Zach Galifianakis) supplying hollow humor.

Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks first optioned British novelist Deborah Moggach’s 1999 best-seller, planning to pair Natalie Portman with Jude Law at Pinewood Studios in the U.K. – until British Chancellor Gordon Brown abruptly closed the tax loophole funding films.

Then several years passed before Harvey Weinstein hired playwright Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) to adapt Deborah Moggach’s script with all its dreadful dialogue. And Ms. Moggach can be spotted as an ‘extra,’ an old lady, drinking beer and puffing on a clay pipe, in the tavern.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tulip Fever” is a tasteless, torpid 3, wilting as it unfolds.

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“Leap!”

Susan Granger’s review of “Leap!” (The Weinstein Company)

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Aimed specifically at pre-teens, this animated feature has a bizarre history. Originally a French/Canada co-production, titled “Ballerina,” it performed well in Europe last year. Unfortunately, the Americanized version lost its magic somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

Set in the French countryside of Brittany in the late 19th century, the story begins at a dreary orphanage, where spirited 11 year-old Felice (Elle Fanning) and her scruffy friend Victor (Nat Wolff) decide to run away to Paris, where Felice can become a famous ballerina and Victor an accomplished inventor.

After escaping from the surly Supervisor, Monsieur Luteau (Mel Brooks), they arrive in the City of Light, where they’re accidentally separated.

The Eiffel Tower is under construction, and Victor lands a menial job as an apprentice in the prestigious atelier of Gustave Eiffel.

After wandering the streets, Felice sneaks into the Paris Opera Ballet.  When the guard catches her, Felice is befriended by Odette (singer Carly Rae Jepson), the lame cleaning lady who has a second job as a housekeeper for evil restauranteur Regine Le Haut (Kate McKinnon).

Madame Regine’s daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) is also an aspiring ballerina, so Felice deviously wangles her way into Ballet Academy auditions by impersonating snotty, selfish Camille.

Although she yearns to play the part of Clara in “The Nutcracker,” untrained Felice has a problem. As Master Merante (Terrence Scammell) puts it, she has “the energy of a bullet and the lightness of a depressed elephant.”

Thinly scripted by Carol Noble, Laurent Zeitoun and co-director Eric Summer, working with co-director Eric Warin, it relies on a formulaic, yet predictable, often anachronistic underdog plot, exhorting young viewers to “follow your dreams.”

There are many similarities to “Anastasia”: both girls flee from orphanages, both have precious music boxes somehow connected with their past, and both pretend to be someone they’re not.

FYI: “The Nutcracker” didn’t premiere until 1892 and was not performed outside of Russia for many years after that.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Leap!” falls flat with an inconsistent, barely functional 4. Wait for the DVD.

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“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” (Lionsgate)

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There are no surprises in this buddy action-comedy. Two established American stars (one Caucasian, one African-American), supported by some stalwart, foreign character-actors, engage in lots of violence, peppered with profanity.

Disgraced Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is an elite private security guard – a.k.a. bodyguard – who botched an assignment when a Japanese arms-dealing client succumbed to sniper fire.

So when his former girl-friend, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Young), asks him to safeguard a witness, promising to restore his “Triple A” reputation, he accepts the assignment.

Bryce is to provide protection for convicted hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who is going from Manchester, England, to The Hague to testify in International Criminal Court against the deposed “ex-Soviet Union” Belarusian president, Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman).

Spewing obscenities, Darius Kincaid’s badass Latina lover, Sonia (Salma Hayek), is incarcerated in a Dutch prison. As part of the bargain, his evidence is her get-out-of-jail card.

Needless to say, Bryce and Kincaid have a bad history together. They’re about to embark on a perilous 24-hour road trip together, and they soon discover they must rely each other to survive.

Scripted by Tom O’Connor (“Fire with Fire”) and directed by Patrick Hughes (“The Expendables 3”), it’s generic to its core and chock full of clichés. The vintage plot is neither original nor inventive. And every scene looks as if it’s filmed through a gauzy haze.

The use of stunt doubles for both is obvious, particularly during the extended chases through Amsterdam. And it becomes ludicrous, even laughable, to see them both emerge unscathed from gun battles that leave their car riddled with bullet holes.

The only saving grace is the occasionally humorous verbal sparring between Bryce and Kincaid.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is a 5, missing its mark.

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“Brigsby Bear”

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

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This charming, low-budget comedic drama came and went too quickly – because Sony Pictures Classics had no idea how to market it. Which is a shame because it has a quirky, provocative theme.

Shielded from the “toxic air” outside, 20-something James (Kyle Mooney) lives in a hermetically sealed bunker, underground in the California desert with his parents, April and Ted Mitchum (Jane Adams, Mark Hamill).

Isolated, James spends his days obsessively watching hundreds of VHS episodes of a fantasy TV show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” featuring a huge, anthropomorphic teddy bear that repeatedly saves the galaxy, while subtly home-schooling James in science and mathematics.

One night, James hears sirens and sees lights coming toward their bunker. When the police arrive, they arrest the Mitchums for kidnapping James from the hospital just after he was born.

Bewildered, James is questioned by Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) and reunited with his real parents, the Popes (Michaela Watkins, Matt Walsh), who have never stopped searching for him.

Understandably confused by the middle-class suburban existence into which he’s thrown, James’ primary reference is “Brigsby Bear” which, as it turns out, cartoonist Ted Mitchum created exclusively for James’ viewing. No one else has ever seen or heard of the show.

Yet when James goes to the movies, he discovers a medium to which he can relate. With the help of his ‘new’ sister Aubrey (Ryan Simkins), her aspiring CGI artist pal Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and empathetic Det. Vogel, James sets out to film a conclusion to Brigsby’s saga – much to the consternation of the Popes and their clueless therapist (Claire Danes).

Written by Kyle Mooney with James Costello, it’s directed by Dave McCary – all “Saturday Night Live” alums. Instead of plunging James into predictable negativity about his abduction trauma, they infuse his character with whimsical creativity, surrounding him with good, kind people willing to collaborate to fulfill his pop culture vision and find closure.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Brigsby Bear” is a sincerely sweet 7, poignant and life-affirming.

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“Birth of the Dragon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Birth of the Dragon” (BH Tilt & WWE Studios)

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Charismatic martial artist Bruce Lee has inspired numerous filmmakers, eager to chronicle his legend. Some have been more successful than others.

Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1964, when cocky Lee was first trying to promote himself as a superstar, George Nolfi creates this fictionalized account of a mythic bout between Lee and Shaolin master Wong Jack Man, who resented Lee’s determination to teach Kung Fu to Americans.

“You fight for ambition and pride,” Wong Jack Man told Lee, “but you do not fight with your soul.”

Although Lee (Philip Ng) had been a strict practitioner of the Wing Chun methodology, after his encounter with the more spiritual, acrobatic Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia), supposedly he began to change not only his style of fighting but also his combat philosophy.

Apparently, their infamous match took place in private, not in public, and probably in nearby Oakland in a warehouse.

Riffing off Michael Dorgan’s 1980 article in “Official Karate” magazine about the fight, screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson have added a pulpy, East/West romantic subplot that involves Lee’s struggling apprentice, Steve McKee (Bill Magnussen).

A native of Indiana, McKee is in love with a young Chinese girl, Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), a “binu” (servant/slave) who is working to pay off her immigration debt while being groomed as a prostitute by the gangster Triad’s Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing).

After its premiere at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, there was a wave of criticism because Nolfi concentrated more on the Caucasian student than either of the Asian leads. So editing adjustments were made. Unfortunately, they did little to improve the inherent melodrama.

FYI: Bruce Lee became a movie star and guru to stars like Chuck Norris, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lee died in 1973 after suffering a brain edema believed to be caused by an adverse reaction to pain medication. Still alive, Wong Jack Man served as a consultant on this film.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Birth of the Dragon” is an unevenly paced 4, saved only by Corey Yuen’s superb action choreography.

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“Good Time”

Susan Granger’s review of “Good Time” (A24)

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Determined to leave the “Twilight” franchise far behind, British actor Robert Pattinson is barely recognizable as a small-time criminal determined to break his mentally-challenged younger brother out of custody.

Cynically dubbed “Of Vice and Men” by those who recognize the modern-day reference to John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novel about two displaced Depression-era migrant workers, it’s a gruesome, violent crime drama from street-savvy, guerilla-filmmaking siblings Josh and Benny Safdie (“Heaven Knows What”) from Queens, New York.

They’re outspoken advocates of “cinema verite,” emerging from the French New Wave that insisted on neo-realism. That means shaky, hand-held camerawork, natural lighting and unlikable, distressed characters mumbling insignificant dialogue while wallowing in depravity.

The pulpy, rambling story begins as Constantine “Connie” Niklas rescues his troubled brother Nicky (co-director Benny Safdie) from a psychiatric evaluation about an incident involving their abusive grandmother.

Connie wants Nicky at his side during a bank robbery, which goes wrong when a dye-pack explodes as they make their getaway, dousing them both in red. Bumbling Connie flees, but panicked Nicky falls into a plate-glass door and gets arrested.

Dwelling in a squalid, shadowy underground culture of drugs and thugs, scumbag Connie manipulates his girl-friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to max out her mother’s credit cards for Nicky’s $10,000 bail.

But then a brawl with another inmate at Rikers Island sends Nicky into a hospital. When Connie tries to stage an escape, he inadvertently springs another patient, Ray (Buddy Duress).

They end up hiding out with teenage Crystal (Taliah Webster), who accompanies them to a dingy, deserted Adventureland theme park in search of Ray’s hidden stash of liquid LSD.

That’s where they encounter Oscar-nominated actor Barkhad Abdi, the emaciated Somali immigrant who played the pirate threatening Tom Hanks’s “Captain Phillips” (2013). Photographed in a black light, he has an eerie purplish-blue glow; his brief, ill-fated appearance is perhaps the most memorable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Good Time” is a far-fetched, feverish 5, bastardizing the jailbird term for days deducted from an inmate’s sentence for good behavior while in prison.

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