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“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Susan Granger’s review of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (Sony Pictures Classics)

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Annette Bening delivers a powerhouse performance as sultry Gloria Grahame. Yet to fully appreciate it, you should know a bit about who this enigmatic actress was.

Back in 1940s and ‘50s film noir, Grahame starred in “Crossfire,” “Sudden Fear,” “The Big Heat,” “In a Lonely Place” and “The Bad and the Beautiful,” for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Fans also remember her from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Oklahoma!”

Obsessed with her appearance, Grahame underwent extensive plastic surgery, habitually fixing nonexistent flaws. Her volatile temperament alienated even the most admiring directors, and she courted scandalous gossip with four disastrous marriages – one to the son of an ex-husband.

The day after divorcing actor Stanley Clements, she married director Nicholas Ray. That ended disastrously after Ray found Gloria in bed with Tony, his 13 year-old son by a previous marriage. She then married and divorced producer Cy Howard before marrying her stepson, 23 year-old Tony Ray.

In 1979, Gloria was on-stage in England when she met Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a British actor who was 28 years younger. Peter became besotted with her, and she spent the last days of her life at his family’s home in Liverpool. Gloria Grahame died from recurring breast cancer in 1981 at age 57.

This is their love story. Just theirs – with only occasional flashbacks. Too bad there weren’t more.

Inspired by Turner’s memoir, adapted by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Paul McGuigan, it was propelled into production by James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, who has known Turner for more than 40 years.

Not only is Annette Bening riveting but Jamie Bell gets his first meaty role since “Billy Elliot.” Their “Saturday Night Fever” disco seduction sequence is terrific. And they’re given stalwart support from Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave.

If you’re curious to know more about the real Gloria Grahame, I highly recommend Vincent Curcio’s 1989 biography “Suicide Blonde.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a subtly poignant 7, another Tinseltown tragedy.

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“Hostiles”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hostiles” (Entertainment Studios)

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Paying homage to classic Westerns like John Ford’s “The Searchers,” writer/director Scott Cooper has created a different kind of frontier saga, one which examines the complexity of the Native American conflict and connects with relevant, contemporary themes, including reconciliation, inclusion and equality.

“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer,” states the preface by D.H. Lawrence.

Set in 1892, it begins with a vicious Comanche raid on isolated homesteaders and U.S. soldiers torturing an Apache family – setting the scene for this revisionist examination of the American West.

Under threat of court martial, embittered Army Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) must escort dying Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from imprisonment at Fort Berringer in New Mexico Territory to their tribal lands in Montana.

Riding northward through the rugged landscape, Blocker and his small troop of soldiers discover grief-wracked Mrs. Quaid (Rosamond Pike), the sole survivor of that Comanche raid; she is determined to dig her children’s graves with her own bare hands.

Given no choice, Blocker takes the widow along with them. When they reach Ford Collins, Colorado, he’s further burdened by transporting psychopathic Sgt. Philip Wills (Ben Foster) for trial.

When the travelers are brutally attached by Comanche raiders, Yellow Hawk begs to be released so he can help them fight, observing, “We must unite…”  Eventually, when faced by a stubborn rancher who refuses to allow proper Cheyenne burials, they do.

Working from an episodic script by the late screenwriter Donald Steward, Scott Cooper enlisted Chief Philip Whiteman, the pre-eminent Northern Cheyenne Chief of Montana, to ensure authenticity. Along with his cast and crew, he was determined to get every detail of their customs and mores correct.

“The majority of Americans are shocked at what our country has become,” notes Bale. “This tax bill, etc. is not what American was built on. I adore this country; it’s my adopted home. Most Americans are shocked to see the hatred and division that has occurred recently, particularly towards refugees. It’s a genuine tragedy. But we have been here before; we can learn from that.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hostiles” is a savage, sorrowful 6, perhaps igniting a conversation about how two opposing forces can come together and move forward in peace and harmony, for the betterment of humanity.

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“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Susan Granger’s review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Disney)

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Writer/director Rian Johnson’s expansion of George Lucas’ galactic adventure franchise is everything you want it to be – and more – particularly viewed on the huge IMAX screen at Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium.

Beginning where J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” left off with the hallmark scrolling-text “crawl,“ the totalitarian First Order under Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is still trying to obliterate Resistance forces, led by wry General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and steely Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern).

Desperate for help, courageous Rey (Daisy Ridley), Jakku’s scavenger-turned-warrior, is dispatched on the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca to try to convince reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) not only to come back but also to train her as a Jedi.

Despite detecting Daisy’s extraordinary aptitude, melancholy Luke is adamant about not leaving Ahch-To, his craggy island sanctuary, particularly when he senses dangerous mind-melding similarities between Rey and his last pupil, despicable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has descended to the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, hotshot Rebel rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) takes off in an X-wing to recklessly taunt, then engage contemptuous General Hux’s (Domhnall Gleason) massive ship.

In a subplot, Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance warrior Finn (John Boyega), plucky newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and the shifty mercenary DJ (Benicio Del Toro) embark on an espionage mission to Canto Bight, a hedonistic casino city, riffing on a previous “Star Wars” cantina with its bizarre clientele.

The requisite lightsaber duels arrive on schedule, along with Yoda. British visual-effects artist Neal Scanlan has created a myriad of engaging creatures, like the ice cave’s Crystal Critters, Ahch-To’s Caretakers and the tiny, saucer-eyed Porgs that bond with Chewbacca. Plus the Droids.

This latest installment is cheeky and fun, while continuing the familial thread, epitomized by idealism, self-sacrifice and Eastern mysticism.

FYI: Principal photography was completed before Carrie Fisher’s poignant death at age 60 on December 27, 2016; her daughter Billie Lourd plays Lieutenant Kaydel Connix.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a spectacular 10. What a great holiday gift for moviegoers! May the Force Be With You….

 

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“Last Flag Flying”

Susan Granger’s review of “Last Flag Flying” (Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)

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In 2003, when his only son, a Marine, is killed in the Iraq War, former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) tracks down his two Marine Corps buddies from the Vietnam War to help him bury his boy.

Traveling from his home in New Hampshire, Larry visits the bar run by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a rowdy alcoholic who doesn’t recognize him at first. After all, they haven’t seen each other for 30 years.

Then they find now-Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who is reluctant to leave his wife and congregation to join this unexpected road trip. While obnoxious Sal and prickly Richard squabble, Larry is trying to cope with his overwhelming grief.

Eventually, they wind up in a hangar at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, confronted by an unctuous Colonel (Yul Vazquez) and five metallic coffins covered by American flags.

When Larry learns exactly how his son died in Baghdad, he decides to refuse burial at Arlington National Cemetery, preferring, instead, to inter him next to his mother in the local Portsmouth graveyard.

So the trio embarks on a bittersweet ride up the East Coast, accompanied by a young Marine escort, one of Larry’s son’s buddies (J. Quinton Johnson). Along the way, they reminisce, reconcile their differences and come to terms with the long-term effects of the conflict that continues to contour their lives.

Adapted by director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) and Darryl Ponicsan from Poniscan’s 2005 novel, it’s a memory drama about male bonding and communal guilt over America’s choice to wage war in foreign countries where our occupying forces are not welcome.

There are indelible connections between this Linklater film and Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” (1973), starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young, which was also based on a novel by Darryl Poniscan.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Last Flag Flying” is a somber, sorrowful 6. Instead of sentimentality, it’s thought-provoking, a very different kind of war film.

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“The Ballad of Lefty Brown”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Molly’s Game”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Post”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Call Me By Your Name”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Shape of Water”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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