“Denial” (Bleecker Street)

Susan Granger’s review of “Denial” (Bleecker Street)


Until the late 1980s, British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) enjoyed respectability among his peers, even though his best-known book “Hitler’s War” (1977) claimed that Hitler had no knowledge of the Holocaust. But then Irving began to deny the existence of the Holocaust, ridiculing claims that there were gas chambers.

When a strident American academic from Queens, New York, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), accused him of anti-Semitism in “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (1993), it never occurred to her that she – and Penguin Books – could be sued for libel – or that the ensuing court cast would put acceptance of the Holocaust on trial.

Under British law, the burden of proof lies on the defendant. In America, it lies with the plaintiff. So Lipstadt, a history professor at Emory University in Atlantic, could either settle out of court, which Irving would claim as a personal victory, or proceed; she chooses the latter.

Solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce against Prince Charles, prepares the case which dour Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) presents at London’s Royal Court of Justice on Lipstadt’s behalf.

Patching together actual transcripts and meticulously researched recordings, screenwriter David Hare (“Wetherby,” “The Hours”) and director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard,” TV’s “Temple Grandin”) proceed as the eight-week courtroom drama evolves. As a result, sneering, smarmy David Irving was not only discredited but also disgraced.

Too bad the filmmakers didn’t try for more of an emotional connection with Deborah Lipstadt, comparable, perhaps, to “Woman in Gold” (2015), in which Helen Mirren played Jewish refugee who went back to Vienna to reclaim a Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis.

In the current political climate, the release of this film couldn’t be timelier, examining concepts like fact-checking, conspiracy theories, and the need for concrete evidence when making claims.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Denial” is a somber, suitably shaming 6, yet without a satisfying showdown moment.


“Camelot” at the Westport Country Playhouse

Susan Granger’s review of “Camelot” (Westport Country Playhouse: Oct., 2016)


Artistic director Mark Lamos concludes the Westport Country Playhouse season with a freshly inventive, far more intimate take on the timeless Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe musical, focusing on the characters, not the grandiosity, delivering a carefully crafted interpretation of the Arthurian legend, filled with noble ideals and forbidden romance, with considerable insight and emotional impact.

Striding on-stage Robert Sean Leonard embodies the perennially conflicted, newly crowned King Arthur, voicing his nervous concern in “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?”

Yet from the moment Britney Coleman, as feisty Guenevere, begins to warble “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” you can’t take your eyes off her. With a lilting, lyrical soprano, reminiscent of Julie Andrews (who originated the part), this lithe actress moves with seductive delicacy of someone wired with explosives.

That enhances this shorter, sexier version, highlighted by her taunting and teasing the virtuous French Knight, Lancelot du Lac, portrayed by Stephen Mark Lukas, whose commanding presence and utter lack of humility are obvious in “C’est Moi.

Their adulterous attraction becomes fodder for smarmy, suspicious Mordred (Patrick Andrews), who exposes their tryst, condemning the lovers.

The production is well served by a stalwart supporting cast, including Michael De Souza, Mike Evariste, Brian Owen and Jon-Michael Reese, while local actor Sana Sarr acquits himself admirably as young Tom of Warwick.

Based on T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” it’s adapted by David Lee and choreographed by Connor Gallagher with Michael Yeargan’s austere/abstract scenic design, Wade Laboissonniere’s Middle Ages costumes, Robert Wierzel’s bold lighting, Domonic Sack’s textured sound, and Wayne Barker’s eight musicians utilizing new orchestrations by Steve Orich.

Viewed at a preview performance, it’s a sure-fire heart-tugger and marvelously entertaining for longtime fans and newcomers alike.

“In short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happ’ly ever-after’ing than here in Camelot!”

Indeed, “Camelot” has already been extended through November 5. Call the box-office at 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

“Queen of Katwe”

Susan Granger’s review of “Queen of Katwe” (Disney/ESPN)


Based on a true story, this film chronicles how talented Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) from the poverty-stricken streets of Katwe, a township that’s south of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, became a world-class chess champion.

Her journey begins when resilient nine year-old Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who runs a sports outreach program of the local church’s youth ministry, teaching scrappy slum kids, struggling to survive, how to play chess – bribing them with a free cup of porridge.

Like Phiona, he’s suffered deprivation and hardship. Because of class discrimination, even with an engineering degree, Katende cannot get a proper, full-time job without family connections.

In chess, Phiona is told, “The small one can become the big one.”

Phiona’s enthusiasm for the new game infuriates her hard-working, widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), whose income depends on Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) selling maize in the marketplace.

But when compassionate Katende realizes that illiterate Phiona is truly a prodigy, he finds ways to help her not only to learn to read but also overcome the many obstacles thrown in her path.

Based on Tim Crothers’s 2012 non-fiction book, William Wheeler’s melodramatic, triumph-of-the-underdog script follows a predictably biographical, sports story formula – with far too many platitudes.

With extraordinary sensitivity, Indian-American Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding”) depicts the harsh, almost unimaginable squalor in which the family lives, often without food, shelter, schooling or medical care, and directs Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga with utmost delicacy.

Her debut performance is richly enhanced by the supporting cast, headed by David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar-winner for “12 Years a Slave”).

Great credit should also go to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt for capturing the authentic African shantytown atmosphere, along with production designer Stephanie Carroll, costume designer Mobotaji Dawodu and editor Barry Alexander Brown.

And the charming closing credits feature the actors standing alongside their real-life counterparts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Queen of Katwe” is an inspirational 7, concluding that being a winner can be a mixed blessing.



Cirque du Soliel’s “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cirque du Soliel: Kurios” (Randall’s Island)


Cirque du Soliel’s blue-and-yellow striped Grand Chapiteau is back on Randall’s Island – delivering dazzling delights. Blending distinctive characters, engaging music and stylish choreography into surreal storytelling, it’s sensational – their best show in many years!

Subtitled, “Cabinet of Curiosities,” it’s set amid a steampunk carnival that’s filled with fantastical clockwork toys, Victorian amusement machines, pianolas, phonograph horns and old-fashioned manual typewriters.

It begins as a simulated train pulls into a station, disgorging fashionable women, mustachioed men and an accordion-pleated fellow who join with jugglers, dancers and percussionists in a sensational opening number.

That’s followed by a fast-paced succession of acrobatic acts, each a little gem. One features a tiny ballerina who gets tossed around by huge strongman. Another introduces men wearing fish tails, bouncing up and down in perfect teamwork on a special Acro Net that resembles a trampoline. A pretty bicyclist soars high in the air. And there are the usual Asian contortionists.

Remember when every circus had a “freak show”? Cirque transforms a tiny woman, Mini-Lili (Antania Satsura from Belarus), less than three-feet tall, into an elegant miniature Mae West, whimsically toted around in a bathosphere.

Spanish hand puppeteer Nico Baixas creates magic, using a video camera that records shadowy finger-images that are projected on a hot-air balloon that becomes a big screen. An audience member is invited on-stage to participate on a ‘date’ with an engaging clown who winds up impersonating a cat. And perhaps the most amazing ‘staging’ emerges in “Upside Down World,” a dinner party that transforms into a triumph of rigging with a man climbing on stacked-up chairs.

Written and directed by Michel Laprise with creative direction by Chantal Tremblay, it’s visually enhanced by Stephane Roy’s set, Philippe Guillotel’s costumes, and Marin LaBrecque’s lighting. In many ways, it resembles Martin Scorsese’s film “Hugo” (2011), set in 1930s Paris.

Cirque du Soliel is currently touring 21 different productions but “Kurios” is perhaps its best EVER!

“Kurios” will play on New York’s Randall’s Island through November 27. For tickets, visit www.cirquedusoliel.com/kurios.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”

Susan Granger’s review of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (20th Century-Fox)


Adapting Ransom Riggs’ 2011 young-adult novel would seem like a perfect fit for the macabre imagination of eccentric filmmaker Tim Burton. Too bad he squanders this spine-tingling opportunity.

When shy, teenage Jake Portman (bland Asa Butterfield) is summoned to his beloved grandfather’s tract home in suburban Florida, he realizes that the old man is dying, the victim of nefarious thugs.

But not really. As Grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp) explains, it’s all connected to the bedtime stories Jake’s heard over the years about leaving Poland just before W.W. II, accompanied by creepy vintage photographs of a bizarre orphanage on a small British island, off the coast of Wales.

With the help of a grief counselor (Allison Janney), Jack convinces his parents (Chris O’Dowd, Kim Dickens) to let him visit his Grandfather’s mysterious island refuge – in hopes of achieving closure.

After extensive exposition, the fun begins when Jack time-travels back to Sept. 3, 1943, to find vampy, pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), tenaciously guarding her fascinating flock of mutants.

There’s weightless Emma (Ella Purnell), who has to wear lead shoes to anchor her to the ground; Olive (Lauren McCrostle), who dons long gloves because her fingers ignite fires; Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), who re-animates objects so they can fight each other; tiny, mute twins in clown costumes; plus other oddities.

They’re living in a continual 24-hour Loop, just prior to a Nazi bombardment. And ghoulish, invisible monsters called “Hollowghasts,” personified by Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), are determined to acquire that Loop when they’re not gobbling eyeballs.

While initially intriguing, Jane Goldman’s script falters, particularly in the climactic chase sequence, as Burton liberally lifts eerie, Gothic-tinged concepts from “Big Fish,” “Back to the Future,” “X-Men,” “Groundhog Day” and “Harry Potter,” leaving teaser traces for a sequel.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a strangely spooky, stylish 6, stumbling when it should soar.




Susan Granger’s review of “ClownTown” (ITN)


Extreme fear of clowns is so prevalent that there’s a word for it: “Coulrophobia.”

That could be reason enough to avoid Tom Nagel’s cheapo horror film that revolves around a group of friends who get stranded in a seemingly abandoned town, only to discover that they’re being stalked by vicious psychopaths dressed as circus clowns.

Allegedly inspired by true events, Jeff Miller’s screenplay begins with a pretty young babysitter removing her halter, baring her breasts and being knifed in the belly. That’s within the first five minutes.

Skip ahead 15 years to Stanley’s Diner, somewhere in southern Ohio.

Jill (Katie Keen) and Mike (Andrew Staton) are double-dating with Sarah (Lauren Compton) and Brad (Brian Nagel). They’re headed for a country music concert in Columbus and, when they ask for directions, they’re told by the local sheriff that there’s a shortcut but warned not to stop in any of the local towns.

Predictably, they get lost. Then Jill realizes she left her cellphone back on the counter in the diner.

When a Good Samaritan calls to say he found it, they arrange to meet in Clinton, a town that was devastated years earlier by a horrific train crash. That’s where they join up with two construction workers, Billy (Tom Nagel) and Dylan (Jeff Denton), as the axe-swinging slaughter begins.

Jill gets kidnapped, tied up and ghoulishly tortured, while her terrified cohorts listen to the sordid history of ClownTown, related by a crazy old coot named Frank (Greg Violand).

It seems there’s a psychotic reason behind the violence, culminating in the explanation: “A mother always has to protect her son, no matter what.”

According to legend, clowns have long been associated with nefarious deeds, including murder, infidelity, pedophilia and financial ruin. But they deserve better than this senseless scream-fest.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “ClownTown” is a trashy 2, several steps beyond creepy.



“The Birds”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Birds” (59E59 – Theater C: 2016-2017 season)


Movie-goers may remember that Alfred Hitchcock used Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novella as inspiration for his terrifying 1963 tension-filled classic, starring Tippi Hedren.

Originally produced at Dublin’s Gala Theatre in 2009, Conor McPherson (“The Weir,” “Shining City,” “The Night Alive”) has adapted the concept into a futuristic, apocalyptic world in which marauding flocks of birds have achieved domination over Earth’s creatures.

Amid sounds of beating wings and rasping caws, three survivors seek shelter in an abandoned New England farmhouse with no electricity and little food.

Arriving with a flashlight, Diane (Antoinette La Vecchia) is a novelist who chronicles the avian onslaught in her diary/journal. She’s joined by Nat (Tony Naumovski), who is afflicted by crippling headaches and psychiatrically unstable.

They take in younger, injured Julia (Mia Hutchinson Shaw), who quotes from Ecclesiastes, seduces Nat, becomes pregnant, making a bizarre appearance at the conclusion as a birdlike creature carrying an egg.

There are numerous revelations and confrontations, few of which are particularly insightful or interesting. Which is doubly disappointing because Conor McPherson has previously proven himself capable of revelation and suspense.

The script is completely devoid of humor and the full-frontal male nudity is totally gratuitous.

In the tiny, cramped black-box space of Theater C, it seems that no audience members have an uncompromised view of the stage. So people either twist in their seats or stand up to try to glean what’s happening from moment-to-moment since, obviously, no one has scrutinized the sight-lines.

So it’s difficult to discern why Resident Birdland director Stefan Dzeparoski, set designer Konstantin Roth and video designer David J. Palmer made these peculiar staging choices – that result in 90 minutes of almost complete frustration – with no intermission in which to flee.

In a (mercifully) limited engagement, “The Birds” runs through Sunday, Oct. 2, at 59E59 Theaters.




Susan Granger’s review of “I.T.” (RLJ Entertainment/Fastnet Films)


As an aerospace industrialist trying to save his company with Omni, a new Uber-like app that enables private jet owners to hire out and make more efficient use of their aircraft, Pierce Brosnan propels this trivial techno-thriller.

He’s Mike Regan and, despite his sophistication and lofty perch in the business world, he’s a technophobe who needs the help of his wife Rose (Anna Friel) just to operate the coffee maker in his kitchen.

So when a Power Point presentation to investors suddenly fails, his all-important Omni demonstration is saved by a nerdy IT temp, Ed Porter (James Frecheville).

Grateful, Mike suggests that Ed should come to his home to fix the Wi-Fi. The complicated surveillance systems with their omnipresent cameras in his ultra-modern “smart house” are awesome – yet awful when they go awry.

“I like my privacy,” Mike explains, offering Ed a drink.

“Privacy’s dead,” Ed counters, adding, “Privacy isn’t a right. It’s a privilege.”

While exploring the premises, Ed eyeballs Mike’s pretty 17 year-old daughter Kaitlyn (Stefanie Scott), which proves to be an unwelcome intrusion, crossing the unspoken employer/employee social boundaries.

Not surprisingly, Ed’s a creepy psychopath. His shady NSA background enables him to quickly acquire all the codes he needs to terrorize the gullible Regan family, particularly when he surreptitiously photographs Kaitlyn masturbating in the shower, sending the video viral.

“You’re not the master of the universe, Mike,” Ed sneers, sadistically menacing all Mike holds dear.

Scripted by Dan Kay and William Wisher and directed by John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines”), the sinister cyber-stalker story is plodding and all too predictable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “I.T.” is a formulaic 4. It’s best to disconnect.



“The Birth of a Nation”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Birth of a Nation” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)


I’m incredibly conflicted about this film. Writer/director/actor Nate Parker has created a searing, powerful Civil War drama, revolving around an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

Set on cotton plantations in Southampton County, Virginia, it reveals that, as a child, Nat (Tony Espinosa) was recognized by an African tribal shaman as a potential prophet/leader. And he’s encouraged to read the Bible by his master’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller).

Years later, Nat (Nate Parker) becomes a Baptist preacher. Amid rumors of insurrection, he’s rented out by his alcoholic owner (Armie Hammer), travelling to neighboring plantations to spread his gospel of subservience and peace.

That’s before brutal acts of traumatic violence turn soulful Nat into a mythic crusader, experiencing intense religious visions and viewing a solar eclipse as a sign from God to lead a ferociously bloody uprising that claimed 60 white families and led to the slaughter of 200 blacks in retaliation.

Filled with heavy-handed symbolism, it’s, nevertheless, thoughtful and perceptive. But how do you separate the artist from his work?

Nate Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of raping an unconscious 18 year-old woman at Penn State. At their 2001 trial, Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty but appealed the verdict; a second trial was thrown out when the victim refused to testify again. She committed suicide in 2012.

Taking top honors at Sundance, selling for $17.5 million (the biggest in the festival’s history), “Birth” appeared to be the kind of African/American film about racism, faith and injustice that would appeal to Academy voters determined to acknowledge diversity. But will it now? It’s a moral dilemma.

FYI: Parker’s brutal portrayal of slavery depicts the rape of two women (Aja Naomi King & Gabrielle Union). And the title is the same as D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 silent film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Birth of a Nation” is an edgy, effective 8, yet tainted by the filmmakers’ shadow of shame.



“The Magnificent Seven”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Magnificent Seven” (Sony Pictures)


Impressed by Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic “Seven Samurai” (1954), director John Sturges adapted the idea into “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Horst Buchholtz and Brad Dexter protect a small village from Mexican banditos, led by charismatic Eli Wallach.

Now, Antoine Fuqua (“The Equalizer,” “Training Day”) saddles up seven gunslingers, hired by a spunky, vengeful widow, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), to save a ransacked mining town from Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a rich, rapacious industrialist.

Set in 1879, as the frontier outpost of Rose Creek is besieged, a prologue quickly establishes how ruthless and evil the villain is before introducing the heroic, multi-racial protagonists.

Bounty-hunter Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) recruits Josh Faraday (Chris Platt), a roguish, hard-drinking Irish gambler (Chris Pratt); Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a twitchy Confederate sharp-shooter; Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a Korean knife-expert; Vasquez (Manuel Garcia Rulfo), a Mexican outlaw; Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a cantankerous tracker; and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a renegade Comanche warrior.

Unevenly scripted by Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenk (“The Equalizer”), it’s filled with archetypal characters yet lacks nuanced exposition. But genre aficionados will note that there is a Gatling gun nod to Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.”

So it’s left to capable Denzel Washington to propel the camaraderie, which is does with extraordinary capability, particularly when they’re preparing the terrified townsfolk – aptly characterized as “farmers, not fighters” – for Bogue’s inevitable invasion with an army of mercenaries.

The chaotic action is graphic, but Fuqua diligently maintains a PG-13 rating, hoping to attract mainstream multiplex audiences yearning for a Western.

While James Horner’s score is evocative, it’s only near the conclusion that he utilizes Elmer Bernstein’s iconic, instantly recognizable, unforgettably haunting music.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Magnificent Seven” is a shoot-em-up 6, supplying a spectacular barrage of bullets.