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“Lion”

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

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When five year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is accidentally abandoned in a railroad station, he gets on a train and falls asleep, travelling thousands of miles across India, far away from his family, left to fend for himself as an orphan on the streets of Kolkata (Calcutta).

That’s how he embarks on the adventure of a lifetime – one that takes him all the way to Australia, where he’s adopted by a loving couple (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), growing up, safe and secure, in Hobart.

25 years later, guided only by fractured, fragmented memories and steadfast determination, adult Saroo (Dev Patel) discovers a technological phenomenon known as Google Earth, which leads him back to his long-lost village and a birth family he barely remembers.

Based on an astonishing true story, “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley (2014), it’s scripted by Australian poet/novelist Luke Davies and sensitively directed by Garth Davis, making his feature film debut; previously, Davis was best known for TV commercials, including Toyota’s “Ninja Kittens.”

The result is spiritual without succumbing to sentimentality.

Diminutive Sunny Pawar exudes a charismatic vulnerability, and the guilt-conflicted resolve shown by Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) is raw, strong and powerful. Their performances are enhanced by Rooney Mara, as Saroo’s supportive girlfriend, and Nicole Kidman, exuding nuanced devotion.

The film’s secondary theme revolves around the unconditional love of an adoptive parent; the two mother-figures are the pillars that support the story – and there’s not one wrong note, look or line of dialogue.

More than 80,000 children disappear each year in India. So this story’s emotional and structural elements strike a basic, universal chord.

While much of the first section is in Hindi with English subtitles, it’s neo-realistic and immersive, transcending language barriers, since its primal appeal revolves around the search for family and identity. And the poignant credits pair the actors with their real-life counterparts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lion” is a triumphant 10. It’s the intimate, uplifting drama you’ve been yearning for.

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TOP 10 LISTS for 2016

Susan Granger’s TOP TEN list for 2016:

 

MOVIES: (in alphabetical order):

ARRIVAL

DEADPOOL

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

HELL OR HIGH WATER

LA LA LAND

LION

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

MOONLIGHT

SULLY

ZOOTOPIA

ACTOR:

Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”

Ryan Gosling in “La La Land”

Hugh Grant in “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Michael Fassbender for “The Light Between Oceans”

Jake Gyllenhaal for “Nocturnal Animals”

Tom Hanks in “Sully”

Michael Keaton in “The Founder”

Viggo Mortensen for “Captain Fantastic”

Ryan Reynolds in “Deadpool”

Denzel Washington in “Fences”

ACTRESS:

Amy Adams in “Arrival” & ”Nocturnal Animals”

Annette Bening in “20th Century Women”

Taraji P. Henson in “Hidden Figures”

Isabelle Huppert in “Elle”

Natalie Portman in “Jackie”

Emma Stone in “La La Land”

Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Tilda Swinton in “A Bigger Splash”

Alicia Vikander in “A Light Between Oceans”

Rachel Weitz in “Denial”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight” & “Hidden Figures”

Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water”

Ralph Fiennes in “A Bigger Splash”

Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Simon Helberg in “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Tracy Letts in “Indignation”

Dev Patel in “Lion”

Robert Redford in “Pete’s Dragon”

Peter Sarsgaard in “Jackie”

Michael Shannon in “Nocturnal Animals”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Viola Davis in “Fences”

Elle Fanning in “20th Century Women”

Naomie Harris in “Moonlight”

Felicity Jones in “A Monster Calls”

Nicole Kidman in “Lion”

Helen Mirren in “Eye in the Sky”

Janelle Monae in “Hidden Figures”

Lupita Nyong’o in “Queen of Katwe”

Octavia Spencer in “Hidden Figures”

Michelle Williams in “Manchester by the Sea”

BEST DIRECTOR:

Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”

Garth Davis for “Lion”

Clint Eastwood for “Sully”

Tom Ford for “Nocturnal Animals”

Stephen Frears for “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight”

Pablo Larrain for “Jackie”

Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea”

David Mackenzie for “Hell or High Water”

Denis Villenueve for “Arrival”

“20th Century Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “20th Century Women” (A24)

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Set in 1979, writer/director Mike Mills weaves an intriguing tale about Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a chain-smoking, single mom who enlists the help of family and friends in nurturing her rebellious 15 year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), as he struggles to find his identity while growing into manhood.

They live in a large, old house in Santa Barbara, California, with a couple of boarders: punk photographer Abby (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited feminist recovering from cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup), an earthy carpenter/handyman who’s helping Dorothea renovate the ramshackle Victorian place.

Skateboarding Jamie is also influenced by his sexually promiscuous best friend, 17 year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who insists on maintaining a platonic relationship, despite her disconcerting habit of sneaking in his window and climbing into his bed at night.

Best remembered for telling his 75 year-old dad’s story in “Beginners” (2010), starring Christopher Plummer, Mike Mills once again draws on semi-autobiographical material to paint a compelling cinematic portrait of a devoted mother who is, admittedly, floundering during a period of social and cultural upheaval.

Mills indulges in plenty of long pauses, making for a rather slow pace, yet casting Annette Bening was a brilliant choice, because she embodies unconventional, middle-aged, lonely Dorothea, coalescing this multi-generational comedic drama.

A pivotal moment occurs when everyone gathers around the TV to watch then-President Jimmy Carter deliver his ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech, using the energy crisis to allude to the vulnerability of the American soul, a prescient prelude to the upcoming Reagan era.

To underscore its period authenticity, Mills borrows from Godfrey Reggio’s cinematic essay “Koyaanisquatsi” and has Dorothea reading “Watership Down” and “Future Shock.”

Music plays a major part of the meandering moviemaking tapestry. While Dorothea prefers standards like “As Time Goes By,” she’s willing to experiment with the Talking Heads vs. Black Flag.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “20th Century Women” is a sensitive yet snarky 7, observing, “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.”

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“Passengers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Passengers” (Columbia Pictures/Sony)

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It’s a terrific sci-fi premise: Two passengers on a 120-year journey on the immense, ultra-luxurious spaceship Avalon emerge from their hibernation pods 90 years too early.

Along with 5000 paying passengers and 258 crew, they’re headed for a distant colony on a planet called Homestead II, which offers a ‘promised land’ alternative to “overpopulated, overpriced and overrated Earth.”

After a damaging asteroid strike, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) emerges from cryogenic sleep. Roaming around, he realizes that he’s the only one awake – with just a genial bartender, an android named Arthur (Michael Sheen), for company.

Jim is a mechanical engineer, so he spends a full year trying to remedy the situation – to no avail.

When he’s almost suicidal with loneliness and desperation, Jim finds another awakened passenger, a beautiful New York writer, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). Naturally, a romantic relationship develops but it’s built on a deception which, inevitably, must be revealed.

To tell you the subsequent turns and twists would spoil the suspense.

Existentially written by Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus,” “Dr. Strange” and the upcoming “Mummy”) and helmed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”), it’s filled with profound moral and philosophical dilemmas. Indeed, this provocative, character-driven screenplay was featured in the 2007 Blacklist of the “most liked” unmade scripts of the year.

In addition, it’s well-cast with remarkably innovative visual and production design, including an automat-style cafeteria, excellent CGI, and Aurora has a sleek travel wardrobe to-die-for. It’s obviously no coincidence that Aurora is also the name of the title character in Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

Unfortunately, disappointment settles in during the concluding act, which seems to have been adjusted by a focus group that demanded some spectacular action/thriller sequences.

FYI:  Years ago, when Weinstein owned the project, Keanu Reeves was slated to star with Reese Witherspoon, then Rachel McAdams. But that didn’t pan out. So Sony’s Joe Rothman cast likeable, bankable Pratt and Lawrence.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Passengers” is an absorbing 6 that, sadly, squanders its compelling castaway concept.

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“Why Him?”

Susan Granger’s review of “Why Him” (20th Century Fox)

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According to writer/director John Hamburg, the idea for this crude, crass comedy about an uptight father meeting his daughter’s obnoxious boyfriend came from Shawn Levy when they were making “Night at the Museum.”

What particularly intrigued Hamburg was how the world had changed since he made “Meet the Parents.” Previously, adults were in charge; now, young Silicon Valley techies have become billionaires. So he made that generational conflict the pivotal point.

Stanford senior Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch) is in love with 32 year-old Laird Mayhew (James Franco), an unconventional, narcissistic video-game mogul. And now her Midwestern parents are coming to California for Christmas.

Her doting father Ned (Bryan Cranston) and overprotective mother Barb (Megan Mullally) have no idea that Stephanie has quit college and moved in with profanity-spewing Laird until they – along with Stephanie’s teenage brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) – arrive at his Xanadu-like mansion in Palo Alto.

Laird’s zany estate is managed by his trainer Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) and a disembodied computer guru, Justine (Kaley Cuoco) – with a New Age chef serving edible soil, topped with plankton foam.

Laird’s wealth is even more galling to Ned, whose old-fashioned printing business in Michigan, is rapidly failing, since Laird has a paperless house, fitted with electronic Japanese commodes with bidet sprays, eliminating the need for toilet paper.

Scripted by Hamburg, Ian Helfer and Jonah Hill, it’s occasionally amusing but, since Stephanie’s character is so underwritten, there’s no empathy for her choice of outlandishly eccentric, shrewdly manipulative Laird.

There are cameos by Elon Musk and the Band KISS, along with timely relevance when suspicious Ned investigates Laird’s finances, discovering that much has been fraudulently inflated.

But many gags are telegraphed in advance, like the inevitable disaster involving an aquarium holding a dead moose entombed in its own urine. And while Ned realizes Gustav’s ambushes parallel Kato’s in “Pink Panther” movies, neither Laird nor Gustav understand the cultural reference.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Why Him?” is a blatantly raunchy 4, prompting the question: Why bother?

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“The Band’s Visit”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Band’s Visit” (Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company)

 

The best news out of the Middle East this year is composer David Yazbek’s fresh, funny, engaging take on cross-cultural miscommunication:

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

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited for the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva in Israel. It’s an important engagement since budget cuts and internal reorganization have threatened the Egyptian musicians’ very existence.

Dressed in crisp, robin’s-egg-blue uniforms and observing full military protocol, they arrive in Tel Aviv with no one to greet them. Unable to contact their Israeli hosts or the Egyptian consulate, they board a bus that’s, ostensibly, bound for their destination but, instead, wind up in a dreary, Negev desert town called Bat Hatikva.

To his dismay, their dignified conductor, Tewfiq Zakaria (Tony Shalhoub), discovers that substituting “B” for “P” makes a major difference, since “B” denotes “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah,” according to Dina (Katrina Lenk), the radiant owner of a local café, singing, “Welcome to Nowhere.”

Since they’re stuck overnight, Dina graciously offers to host Tewiq, an emotionally restrained widower, and Haled (Ari’el Stachel), the flirtatious trumpeter who asks everyone he meets, “Do you know Chet Baker?” before launching into his own rendition of “My Funny Valentine.”

The others – each with his own angst – stay at the café or with Itzik (John Cariani), his resentful wife Iris (Kristen Sieh) and her father, Avrum (Andrew Polk).

Inevitably, the evening leads to some curious confusion, a bit of chaos in a 1970s roller rink, and a large measure of compassion – on both sides.

Adapted by Itamar Moses from from Eran Kolirin’s ingratiating 2007 Israeli comedy and fluidly directed by David Cromer, it’s wistfully droll and charming, subtly incorporating various Middle Eastern influences. The climactic number, “Answer Me,” featuring the entire ensemble, is splendiferous.

“The Band’s Visit” 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.”

Set designer Scott Pask inventively utilizes the rotating stage; Sarah Laux’s costumes are austere, yet exotic; and Tyler Micoleau’s intense lighting is effective, particularly evoking the desert at night.

In a limited run, “The Band’s Visit’ plays at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater – at 336 West 20th Street – until January 1, 2017.

“A Monster Calls”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Monster Calls” (Focus Features)

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Dark, gothic fantasy abounds in Juan Antonio Bayona’s empathetic exploration of how an adolescent British lad faces the terminal illness of his beloved mother.

Bullied at school, 12 year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) suffers from a recurring nightmare about his ailing Mum (Felicity Jones), for whom various cancer treatments don’t seem to be working.

Her rapid decline may force Conor to move in with his imperious grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) or relocate to America with his re-married dad (Toby Kebbell), who has established a new family there.

At exactly 12:07 a.m., Conor imagines that the enormous yew tree in a nearby church cemetery turns into a huge Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who stomps to his house, reaches into his bedroom window and grabs Conor, saying, “I have come to get you.”

The Monster proposes telling him three stories on three consecutive nights in exchange for Conor’s sharing – on the fourth night – the terrible truth about his own horrifically repetitive nightmare.

Each visually effective tale relates to what Conor has been experiencing, since his fiercely protective mother doesn’t want to admit what’s really happening to her – because it’s too much for either of them to bear. And each story teaches Conor about courage and faith.

Scripted by Patrick Ness from his own 2011 novel, this melodramatic fable about dealing with grief and its attendant anger is directed by Spain’s J.A. Bayona, best known for helming “The Impossible” about a family that survives an Indian Ocean tsunami and a Spanish chiller called “The Orphanage.”

It’s also Patrick Ness’ tribute to his friend Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before being able to write it herself.

Next for J.A. Bayona is the sequel to “Jurassic World,” scheduled for 2018.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Monster Calls” is a shivery, insightful 7 – and truly heartbreaking.

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“Star Wars: Rogue One”

Susan Granger’s review of “Star Wars: Rogue One” (Disney)

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas had a visionary concept of space-age mythology, utilizing droids, alien entities and aerial dogfights as background for a compelling human drama that evolved over the course of six films, creating a quasi-mystical epic.

But then in 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, planning a series of spinoffs,

In this installment, a prequel between “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” and “Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope,” the stars are gone and much of the spirit has been lost, leaving only a lot more wars.

After her backstory is established, resourceful Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) joins the Alliance, working with Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a ragtag group of freedom fighters, to steal plans for the Death Star, an immense galactic weapon designed by Jyn’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), from Darth Vader’s evil Empire.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. Combat prevails as a multitude of characters are all-too-briefly introduced, only to disappear into the ether from which they emerged.

There’s Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), Bodi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut Imwe, and a blind Ninja (Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen) who is guided by the Force – plus villainous Imperial overlord Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). James Earl Jones once-again voiced Darth Vader.

Cassian Andor’s black metallic robot, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), provides caustic comic relief – and there are some cool cameos, made possible by CGI and motion-capture technology.

Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy work with director Gareth Edwards (“Monsters,” “Godzilla”) and Industrial Light and Magic’s chief creative officer John Kroll to coalesce the fantasy around the scrappy warrior, Jyn Erso. Unfortunately, she lacks the spunky appeal of Daisy Ridley’s Rae in J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Star Wars: Rogue One” is a spacefaring 6 – like a big-screen computer game with lots of Stormtroopers.

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“Hidden Figures”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hidden Figures” (20th Century Fox)

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Searching through history often reveals untold true stories that are hidden gems: this is one of them.

During the early 1960s, several African-American women worked for NASA, providing the mathematical data needed to launch America’s first successful space mission.

But, every day – in a myriad of ways – their integrity and perseverance were challenged by the hostile racism and inherent sexism of that period.

Graduating from college summa cum laude at the age of 18, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was, perhaps, the most brilliant mathematician of her time.

When the Space Task Group’s manager, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), finally admitted Katherine into the elite rocket scientists’ inner sanctum, she calculated trajectories for John Glenn’s Earth orbit in 1962 and subsequent missions.

But Katherine suffered daily humiliations, including not being allowed to use bathroom facilities in the building in which she worked and being assigned an often-empty ‘colored coffee’ thermos.

“They’ve never had a colored in here before,” personnel supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) explains.

Even Katherine’s admiring husband-to-be (Mahershala Ali) could not comprehend her aptitude for analytical geometry.

Katherine’s colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (R&B star Janelle Monae) were similarly humiliated, condescendingly referred to as ‘colored computers’ and paid considerably lower wages.

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the title aptly symbolizes the obscurity of black female statisticians during that segregated era – yet the screenplay by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) contains several moments of feel-good humor.

Like when Dorothy’s Chevy Bel-Air breaks down and a cop stops to question them. When they explain they work for NASA, he gives them a police escort to the research center at Langley, prompting Mary to quip, “We’re three Negro women chasing a white cop in 1961!”

As well as producing the film, Pharrell Williams also oversaw the musical elements and soundtrack.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hidden Figures” is an uplifting 8, delivering an inspiring message of hope.

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“Loving”

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

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Writer/director Jeff Nichols solemnly tackles one of the most influential Civil Rights cases of the late 1960s.

When his girlfriend Mildred (Ruth Negga) told bricklayer Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) that she was pregnant, he insisted on driving from rural Virginia to Washington, D.C. so they could get married.

Richard was Caucasian and Mildred was African-American; interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia in 1958 under an “anti-miscegenation” statute enacted in 1924.

After they returned home, Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) and his deputies burst into their bedroom to arrest them. The judge offered a one-year suspended sentence if they’d leave the state and not return for 25 years, noting:

“Almighty God created the races: white, black, yellow, Malay and red. He placed them on separate continents and, but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages.”

So the Lovings moved to Washington, D.C. But Mildred hated urban living and was determined to have Richard’s midwife mother (Sharon Blackwood) deliver their child. Which led to their second arrest.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1963 inspired Mildred to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred their plight to the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU lawyers (Nick Kroll, Jon Bass) gradually guided their case to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Loving vs. Virginia decision in 1967, which struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage – chronicled by a Life magazine photographer (Michael Shannon) as “The Crime of Being Married.”

But unlike “Sully,” which began with Capt. Sullenberger’s plane crash-landing in the Hudson River and went on to reveal “the rest of the story” – there are no dramatic disclosures that offer insight into the characters or their dilemma. Only historical facts, emphasizing stoic patience and perseverance.

Plus, Richard was a taciturn, monosyllabic, almost stone-faced fellow, and Mildred’s shy, soft-spoken demeanor was also extraordinarily low-key. Their reserved humility drains much of the drama out of this real-life story.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Loving” is a slow, sensitive, subdued 7 – timely primarily because it paved the way for the more recent controversy over same-sex marriage.

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