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“The Disaster Artist”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Disaster Artist” (A24)

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It’s rare that making a truly terrible movie gets celebrated, let alone re-made into a major release. But that’s the case with Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” (2003), related by director/actor James Franco.

Based on a 2013 memoir (“The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”) by Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, it chronicles how Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero met after a San Francisco acting class in 1998.

Blandly handsome Greg (Dave Franco, a.k.a. James’ younger brother) so admires the deranged exhibitionism of weird Wiseau (James Franco) that he suggests they do a scene together. That leads to a friendship/partnership, as they move to Los Angeles, determined to become movie stars.

After suffering inevitable rejection within the film industry, delusionary Wiseau writes an incoherent screenplay for them both and funds it himself, spending $6 million on this ludicrous vanity project.

When they visit a movie-equipment supplier, who inquires whether Wiseau wants to shoot on 35-mm film or high-definition video, he opts for both, insisting on buying the equipment rather than renting it. Realizing megalomaniacal Wiseau’s guileless ineptitude, the supplier then offers to add in the use of their own studio and professional crew.

James Franco actually recreates about 20 minutes of absurd awfulness of “The Room” as part of this movie-within-a-movie.

Told from Greg’s naïve perspective, the anecdotal story never delves into egocentric Wiseau’s mysterious past, including his garbled, vaguely Eastern European accent. And the source of his seemingly unlimited funding is never revealed, which adds to the concept’s inherent superficiality and triviality.

For celebrity spotters, there are cameos by Judd Apatow, Kristen Bell, Alison Brie, Bryan Cranston, Zac Efron, Ari Graynor, Melanie Griffith, Josh Hutcherson, Seth Rogen, Adam Scott, and Jacki Weaver.

According to IMDB.com, Wiseau was born in Poland in 1955 and his income derived from leather and real-estate businesses. Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau have a new film, “Best F(r)iends,” set for release in 2018.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Disaster Artist” is a slick, yet schlocky 6, a muddled misadventure.

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“Darkest Hour”

Susan Granger’s review of “Darkest Hour” (Focus Features)

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Following Christopher Nolan’s epic “Dunkirk,” Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” further illuminates that massive evacuation in 1940, utilizing a dazzling performance by Gary Oldman as that plummy wordsmith, Winston Churchill. Actually, the films are complementary.

Within days of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill was faced with the choice of negotiating a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler, whom he considers a madman, or standing firm, engaging his nation in World War II to fight for freedom from tyranny.

As Nazi Germany’s troops rolled across Western Europe, invading France, encircling and pushing 400,000 Allied troops into the sea at Dunkirk, Churchill found himself coping not only with his own cabinet and the pacifist Parliament plotting against him but also skeptical King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn).

When the King asks, “How do you manage drinking during the day?” Churchill curtly replies, “Practice.”

Supported by his devoted wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), yet wracked by depression and self-doubt over the defeat at Gallipoli, Churchill duly considers appeasement but, ultimately, defies former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and does what he thinks is right.

“How many more dictators must be appeased before we learn? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”

Scripted by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), it’s inventively directed by Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina”), who previously staged the Dunkirk scenes in “Atonement” (2007).

Admittedly, the simplistic yet superbly structured scene of Churchill going out to “meet the working people” in London’s Underground is fictionalized. Added for dramatic purposes, it’s remarkably effective.

Although veteran actor Gary Oldman has only been nominated once, for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” he will probably walk off with the Academy Award as Best Actor. Propelled by incredible, almost manic, energy, both mental and physical – augmented by jowly makeup and padding – he transforms himself into the pugnacious 20th century icon.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Darkest Hour” is a suitably stylish 7, emerging as a career-defining Oscar-vehicle for Gary Oldman.

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“Believe in Magic: Jason Bishop”

Susan Granger’s review of “Believe in Magic: Jason Bishop” (New Victory Theater)

Looking for enchantment? Jason Bishop delivers an astonishing introduction to magic – and while his show perfect for children – with booster seats distributed by ushers – adults will also be enthralled.

Back by popular demand after a sold-out run last year, this internationally touring magician immediately develops a firm connection with his audience, engaging eager young volunteers, handling them with gentle professionality.

Bishop’s illusions include swords and levitations, most involving his graceful assistant, Kim Hess. At the beginning of the show, Kim gamely climbs into one of Bishop’s many ‘boxes’ and, seemingly, evades piercing by sabers. Later, she twirls glowing batons and, eventually, levitates, along with Bishop.

During a brief interlude of cards and coin tricks (viewed on a large screen via Go-Pro video), Bishop confides that he was raised by foster families in rural Pennsylvania. He taught himself magic from books in the public library, quickly becoming the youngest person ever to win the Magician’s Alliance of Eastern States Stage Award.

After the intermission, Bishop briefly interacts with the audience in the mezzanine and introduces his adorable Yorkshire terrier, named Gizmo, wearing a red holiday sweater. Amazingly, Gizmo appears and disappears as Bishop teleports him from place to place.

There’s an intriguing, interactive game, devised with a program insert showing holiday icons, including Santa, a Dreidel, a Menorah, a gingerbread man, and a Kinara.

Shrieks of delight continue as a mass of shredded wet paper causes snow to fall on the audience, and Bishop – with the help of a hefty security guard – manages to make a million dollars disappear into thin air– poof! –before those $100 ‘bills’ (augmented by photos of Gizmo) descend from the ceiling.

Kudos to illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer, technical director Ellen Schmoyer, and lighting designers Herrick Goldman and Susan Nicholson.

For wondrous, family-friendly entertainment during this holiday season, catch Jason Bishop at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street – through December 30th. For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.newvictory.org.

“Derren Brown: Secret”

Susan Granger’s review of “Derren Brown: Secret” (Atlantic Theater Co./Linda Gross Theater)

 

For several months, British magician Derren Brown, who sells out 1,700-seat Palace Theater in London’s West End and has been awarded two Olivier Awards and one BAFTA (the British equivalent of an Oscar), has been performing, at the 200-seat Linda Gross Theater, part of Manhattan’s Atlantic Theater Company.

Brown’s particular brand of magic is called mentalism, or mind-reading, and his shows are centered on the audience, not on him. What he creates are illusions and he throws Frisbees into the audience to choose volunteers.

Derren Brown doesn’t want any information regarding the specifics of his show to be shared, which makes ‘reviewing’ daunting. But good critics never reveal ‘whodunit’ or the twist at the end of the movie, right?

Having said that, Brown’s show begins with a series of questions whose answers are determined by subtle physical cues. And he doesn’t always get them all right, which only serves to up his ‘likeability’ quotient.

“We are all trapped inside our own minds,” Brown tells the audience, adding that the stories we tell ourselves are precisely what limit our perceptions. These tales, which impose logic on confusion, serve to simplify the complexities of real life.

“It’s all fiction,” he concludes.

The one ‘secret’ Brown, a former Roman Catholic schoolboy, does reveal is that he’s gay, an admission which sets the tone for a climate of confessions from members of the audience.

Brown shares writing credit with Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor, his co-directors, who indulge in subtle details. Like: listen carefully to the choice of songs that play before the show and during intermission; the music eventually becomes relevant.

Obviously, Derren Brown’s future is headed for Broadway, so catch him now – while you still can.

“I, Tonya”

Susan Granger’s review of “I, Tonya” (Neon)

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Unless you find parental and domestic abuse amusing, the Coming Attractions are deceiving. This is NOT a comedy – in any sense of the word.

Craig Gillespie’s glibly fictionalized, bizarre biopic begins with…”Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.”

To refresh your memory: back in 1994, figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped by thugs, so that rival Tonya Harding could have a better chance at winning in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Scripted by Steven Rogers, Tonya’s story is told from several perspectives. There’s Tonya herself (Margot Robbie), her sadistic mother (Allison Janney), and her stupid ex-husband (Sebastian Stan).

As a three year-old in Portland, Oregon, Tonya was a remarkable ice-skater. Her remarkable strength and athletic ability was exploited by the relentless bullying of her hyper-critical mother.

Caricatured as “trashy Tonya,” her lack of refinement and working-class background were reflected in her costumes, hairstyle, choice of music and aggressive style. Yet, to the surprise of the skating world, Tonya became the first American woman to complete the triple axel in competition.

“Used to getting her ass kicked,” Tonya was attracted to an obnoxious suitor, Jeff Gillhooly, whose best pal was scheming, delusional Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).

Although Tonya steadfastly maintains she had no part in the moronic kneecapping plan, she was subsequently found guilty and banned from competitive skating for the rest of her life.

While Margot Robbie delivers a remarkably dark performance, she refused to meet Tonya Harding before playing her, telling “Variety,” “I knew that if I met her and liked her, I would never play the character properly. I would be sugar-coating her flaws. I would be trying to justify the bad things she might say or do in a situation. I didn’t want to do that because I’m a people-pleaser, and I know it.”

And captivating Allison Janney might bring home Oscar gold as the acid-tongued, LEAST supportive mother-of-the-year.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “I, Tonya” is a flawed 5, just like its ferocious heroine.

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“Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Susan Granger’s review of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (Sony/Columbia Pictures)

Roman J Israel, Esq. (2017)

Roman J Israel, Esq. (2017)

Sublimely talented Denzel Washington deserves better than writer/director Dan Gilroy’s tepid, convoluted thriller in which he plays the titular role, an idealistic legal-savant whose nerdy, antisocial personality places him in the Asperger range on the autism spectrum.

When his beloved, long-time partner has a ruinous heart attack, Israel realizes he can’t run the downtown Los Angeles criminal law practice alone, particularly since it’s devoted to social justice, defending the poor and downtrodden on a pro-bono basis.

After he’s turned down for a salaried position at a civil-rights project headed by Maya Alston (Carmen Ajogo), Israel takes a job a mega-firm headed by slick, high-powered George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – with whom he seems to have little in common. And then he’s faced with a crisis of conscience.

After memorizing the entire California legal code, Israel has devoted years to assembling a class-action lawsuit to challenge the pervasive system of plea bargaining, dubbing it a rigged game in which prosecutors threaten defendants with hefty prison sentences, hoping to get them to plead ‘guilty,’ even if they’re innocent, thus short-circuiting the legal process.

“Each of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he maintains. So incarcerating young people for a long time almost guarantees that the worst thing they’ve ever done will define the rest of their lives.

Designed as a follow-up to his melodramatic “Nightcrawler,” which eviscerated the parasitic tabloid media culture, Dan Gilroy continues his cynical, character-driven concept. Roman J. Israel is a relic from the social-activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And corruption, once again, is the culprit.

Denzel Washington is almost unrecognizable with a shapeless, three-inch high Afro, aviator glasses and frumpy, mismatched outfits, yet his vocal eloquence is unmistakable. An anachronism in urban Los Angeles, he doesn’t own or drive a car. Instead, he walks, wearing headphones, lugging a huge leather briefcase.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a contrived, unfocused 5 – with a twisty, frustrating finale.

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“The Band’s Visit”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Band’s Visit” (Barrymore Theater)

 

Adapted from a small, independent 2007 Israeli film and an ingratiating run last year at the Atlantic Theater Company’s intimate Linda Gross Theater, “The Band’s Visit” has landed on Broadway, courtesy of witty playwright Itamar Moses, composer/lyricist David Yazbek and director David Cromer.

It begins with: “Once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t so very important.”

When the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra reaches Tel Aviv, they’re supposed to be met by a representative of the Arab Cultural Center. Since no one greets them, they inadvertently purchase bus tickets to Bet Hatikva, instead of Petah Tikvah, where they’re scheduled to play a concert. If you don’t speak Hebrew, the names of the towns sound almost identical.

Problem is: desolate Bet Hatikva is, as the song goes, “Nowhere.”

“Stick a pin in a map of the desert/

Build a road to middle of the desert/

Pour cement on the spot in the desert/

That’s Bet Hatikva.”

Wearing their crisp, powder-blue uniforms (courtesy of Sarah Laux) and carrying instruments (which they play), they disembark, only to discover that another bus isn’t scheduled until the next morning.

Tony Shalhoub plays the band’s staid, protocol-conscious leader who is befriended by Katrina Lenk as a sultry, disillusioned woman who runs the local café/bar; they share a love of Omar Sharif and Egyptian movies.

Ari’el Stachel is a flirtatious young trumpeter; Alok Tewari is a career-blocked composer/clarinetist. Etai Benson is a shy, insecure teen. Andrew Polk is a loquacious grandpa with Kirsten Sieh as his resentful daughter and John Cariani as her out-of-work husband. And Adam Kantor as the lonely guy who waits by the public telephone, hoping to hear from his girlfriend.

“Very soon, very soon,” he sings, as his sentiment us echoed by the ensemble.

Inevitably, the evening leads to curious confusion, a bit of chaos and a large measure of compassion.

Scott Pask’s minimalist set cleverly utilizes a rotating stage, astutely lit by Tyler Micoleau, evoking the Negev desert at night….and there is no intermission.

“The Band’s Visit” is wistfully droll and charming, subtly incorporating various Middle Eastern influences, and should delight theater aficionados who enjoyed David Yazbek’s previous shows: “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

 

“Lady Bird”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lady Bird” (A24)

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Actress/screenwriter Greta Gerwig makes an auspicious directorial debut with this perceptive coming-of-age dramedy, chronicling the tempestuous bond between a teenager and her mother.

Set in 2002-3 in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, California, it begins with novelist Joan Didion’s acerbic observation: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is coping with her senior year at a Catholic high school and unrest at home, since her mild-mannered father, Larry (Tracy Letts), lost his job and her strong-willed mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), works two shifts as a psychiatric nurse to keep the lower middle-class family afloat, albeit on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks.

“I want you to be the best version of yourself,” her hypercritical, demeaning mother says. “What if this is the best version?” mildly rebellious Lady Bird counters.

Understandably eager to get away from home, just-turned-18 year-old Lady Bird secretly applies to East Coast colleges, “where the culture is,” even though her parents can barely afford in-state tuition at nearby UC Davis.

Not surprisingly, Lady Bird’s adolescent love life is awkwardly complicated, first by hunky thespian Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges), who is grappling with his own problems, then she loses her virginity to musician Kyle Scheible (Timothee Chalamet).

Besieged by emotional contradictions and confusion, Lady Bird recklessly jilts her sensitive BFF Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein) for a richer, more popular classmate, Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush).

Filmmaker Gerwig pays attention to artfully delineated supporting characters, like the insightful counseling by Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) and the clueless ex-football coach-turned-drama director diagraming the staging of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” with X’s and O’s on a chalkboard.

And – this being Award season – look for Saoirse Ronan as a Best Actress nominee and Laurie Metcalf as a Best Supporting Actress contender.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lady Bird” is an effectively empathetic 8, filled with sassy, bittersweet anguish.

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“The Man Who Invented Christmas”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (Bleecker Street)

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Have you ever wondered how Charles Dickens created “A Christmas Carol”?

Adapting Les Standiford’s 2008 biography, screenwriter Susan Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri introduce self-absorbed Dickens (Dan Stevens) in 1842, as he relishes his triumphal speaking tour of the United States, where “Oliver Twist” is a tremendous success.

A year and three publishing ‘flops’ later, 31 year-old Dickens is back in Victorian-era London, wrestling with writer’s block and insistent bill collectors. When he ‘pitches’ a Christmas book to his publishers, they scoff at the idea, informing him that it’s a ‘minor holiday,’ not worth the effort and expense.

After conferring with his best friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) at the famed Garrick Club, Dickens decides to publish the book himself – if only he can get the inspiration to finish it.

Then, suddenly, the vivid apparition of slyly crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) appears, along with Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

“We know that Dickens did carry on conversations with his characters, so that’s based on the true story, and we’ve invented his interior thoughts,” explains Susan Coyne.

While all this is happening in Dickens’ feverish imagination, he’s forced to confront several real-life dilemmas, like his wife’s pregnancy, adding to the four young children they already have. Plus, his genial, ne’er-do-well father, John (Jonathan Pryce) is once again leaning on him for loans.

The unexpected arrival of his estranged father ignites unwelcome recollections of Charles’ impoverished childhood, when he worked in a boot-blacking factory where he was mercilessly bullied. And it soon becomes obvious that Dickens must come to terms with his inner demons before he can finish his holiday tale.

Fact and fantasy intertwine as the familiar fable unfolds. “A Christmas Carol” has never been out-of-print and is widely acknowledged as a major influence on Yuletide traditions, including family, friendship and charity.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a whimsical 6, an endearing trifle.

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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Susan Granger’s review of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (Fox Searchlight)

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Writer/director Martin McDonaugh’s darkly comic revenge drama revolves around grieving Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered several months ago.

Since the Ebbing Police Department has been unable to find the killer, Mildred rents three abandoned billboards on a back road to advertise their ineptitude and complacency, focusing on Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who has been privately agonizing about not having solved the crime and is dying of pancreatic cancer.

Launching this outrageously merciless, one-woman crusade, Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Olive Kitteridge”) delivers a formidable, ferociously uncompromising performance that firmly places her on-track for another Academy Award. She’s adroitly supported by Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, as his moronic, rage-filled deputy.

Plus there’s Caleb Landry Jones as the local ad-sales agent, Peter Dinklage as the kindly car salesman who courts Mildred, Lucas Hedges as her long-suffering teenage son and John Hawkes as her abusive ex-husband.

Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonaugh (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Pillowman,” “In Bruges”) specializes in agonizing emotional pain, juggling comedy and tragedy, touching on racism and misogyny, peppered with irrational, uncontrolled violence and coarse, cruel pranks.

After winning the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, McDonaugh noted the fortunate timing: “It’s great to be putting out a film with such a strong woman lead character. Even just two months before anyone had seen it, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be taken…We worried that the darkness in the story might not allow people to laugh.”

Kudos also to British cinematographer Ben Davis, production designer Inbal Weinberg and composer Carter Burwell’s distinctive musical score.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is an edgy, unpredictable 8, a morbidly funny film.

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