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“Marshall”

Susan Granger’s review of “Marshall” (Open Road Films/Starlight Media)

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Conceived by 74 year-old Westport attorney Michael Koskoff and his screenwriter son Jacob, this courtroom drama, set in Fairfield County, focuses on a rape case in 1941, when Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a crusading civil rights lawyer for the NAACP.

After a Greenwich socialite, Mrs. Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), accuses her African-American chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of raping her and pushing her off a bridge, he’s arrested, and frightened white people across the country began firing their domestic workers.

At age 32, Thurgood Marshall already had a formidable reputation, traveling around the South defending African-Americans in redneck towns, and he’d already argued before the Supreme Court.

Arriving in Bridgeport, Marshall quickly realizes that Spell’s ‘confession’ was coerced. And it’s obvious that Judge Colin Foster (James Cromwell) sides with prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), ruling that, although Marshall may sit at the defense table as co-counsel, he can’t speak in the courtroom because he’s from out-of-state.

Instead, Spell’s defense is articulated by Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), a reluctant insurance attorney with no experience in criminal law. As the case proceeds, these two young lawyers – a black and a Jew – bond, enduring a huge amount of racism and antisemitism.

Like most docudramas, what really happened is visualized in accordance with conflicting testimonies.

Conventionally directed by Reginald Hudlin, it struggles to keep a consistent tone, particularly when Marshall visits Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse, hanging out with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

But Hudlin elicits strong performances from Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad.

Not long after, Thurgood Marshall won the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which desegregated public schools; in 1967, he became the Supreme Court’s first African-American judge.

FYI: Because of Connecticut’s moratorium on filmmaking tax credits, it was not filmed locally. And actress Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman, plays a bit part as a Mississippi mother.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Marshall” is a historically significant 6, a biopic filled with cultural resonance.

06

“Professor Marston & the Wonder Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” (Annapurna/Sony)

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This is, undoubtedly, the most kinky, provocative comic-book superhero ‘origin’ story – and it’s true!

It begins with a public burning of “Wonder Woman” comics and the stern interrogation of Harvard psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) by Josette Frank (Connie Britton) of the Child Study Association of America, who grills him about his subversive obsession with bondage, which Marston maintains symbolizes his motivational theory.

Flash back to when Marston and his even-more-erudite wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), were fascinated by human behavior, specifically the manipulative dynamics of his DISC theory (dominance-inducement-submission-compliance).

“Are you normal? What is normal?” Marston quizzes Radcliffe undergrads, noting, “Men’s minds are far too limited, That’s why we need women!”

While testing their new invention (a.k.a. the lie detector), they become besotted by a student, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the daughter of suffragette Ethel Byrne and niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Open-minded Olive hides the Marstons in her sorority so they can observe ritualized hazing.

When Olive moves in, she enjoys sexual relations with both Marstons, which, not surprisingly, leads their expulsion from Harvard. After moving to Rye, New York, their daring threesome continues, as both women bear William’s children while continuing their penchant for costumed S&M role-playing.

In the 1940s, William starts writing stories, incorporating his psychological theories into the composite character of Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, a liberated role model with radical sexual subtext that intrigues comic book publisher E. C. Gaines (Oliver Platt).

Obsessed with the inherent eroticism, Angela Robinson directs from her own heavy-handed script, eliciting surprisingly memorable performances from the trifecta, particularly multi-faceted Rebecca Hall – and the timing is perfect since “Wonder Woman” is the pop culture hit of 2017.

If you want to know more, read Jill Lapore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” and David Hadju’s “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” is an intriguing, unconventional 8, propelled by the feminist superpower.

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“The Mountain Between Us”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Mountain Between Us” (Fox 2000: 20th Century-Fox)

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Despite Idris Elba’s charismatic presence, this melodramatic survival story struggles to achieve a steady pace and tone, as the characters played by Elba and Kate Winslet fight to remain alive in the wilderness.

When their paths cross in the airport after their flight to Denver is cancelled because of an impending storm, Alex Martin (Winslet) and Ben Bass (Elba) are desperate. She’s a photojournalist, frantic to get home for her scheduled wedding, while he’s a British neurosurgeon, determined not to miss urgent surgery on an ailing child.

Impulsive Alex suggests chartering a small plane and cautious Ben, somewhat hesitantly, agrees. But soon after they’re airborne, the folksy pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) suffers a fatal stroke and the plane smashes into a snowy ridge in the High Uintas Wilderness, part of the Rockies in northern Utah.

Since no one ever filed a flight plan, they’re left to their own devices, along with Walter’s (unnamed) golden Labrador. Alex’s leg is obviously broken, but Ben sets it so adroitly that she’s able to hobble with an improvised cane.

Realizing there’s no cell phone service, few supplies and subzero temperatures, Alex recites the Rule of Three: “People can survive three days without water, three hours without shelter and three minutes without air.”

Which leads to the crucial question: Should they stay within the confines of the shattered plane, trusting to be spotted by a search party, or trek down the slippery slopes with their canine companion, hoping to find help?

Adapted by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe from Charles Martin’s 2010 romance-novel, it’s helmed at a leisurely pace by Dutch/Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Omar”), leaving plenty of time for Alex and Ben to bicker and bond, igniting an utterly predictable romance, while cinematographer Mandy Walker supplies breathtaking, vertiginous vistas, shot in British Columbia

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Mountain Between Us” is a slogging 6 – with a sappy ending.

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“Blade Runner 2049″

Susan Granger’s review of “Blade Runner 2049” (Warner Bros./Sony)

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Although it cost $150+ million and brings back Harrison Ford (albeit not until too late), French/Canadian director Denis Villenueve’s gamble to revive “Blade Runner” hasn’t paid off.

First, it’s relevant that Ridley Scott’s 1982’s legendary neo-noir thriller wasn’t a big box-office success. Second, it’s now 35 years later, and many hardcore sci-fi fans who were dazzled by the original aren’t around anymore.

Set three decades into the future, the ominously bleak, dystopian Los Angeles cityscape with its constant rain and neon-lit grime is stunning.

After an upgraded Nexus 9 replicant LAPD Officer “K” (Ryan Gosling) hunts down and kills an outdated Nexus 8, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he stumbles across a secret that his steely supervisor, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) fears will destroy the delicate balance between replicants and humans.

It seems that a previous generation of replicants were able to reproduce – and there’s a child out there to prove it: the offspring of the android Rachael (Sean Young) and Det. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Creepy robot-manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) with his replicant Luv (Sally Hoecks) are determined to discover how the Tyrell Corporation (from the first film) made its androids capable of procreation, so he can use that technology to increase replicant production.

In the interim, “K” has embedded memories, which give him and others of his kind, the illusion of human experience yet keeping them subservient. While enduring his own existential crisis, K has a compliant AI companion, a hologram aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), whom he thinks he “loves.”

Which poses the essential question: “Do machines have feelings?”

Riffing on Philip K. Dick’s characters from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” co-screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green support Denis Villenueve’s (“Arrival”) vision which consistently emphasizes the gritty style/production design over the slow-paced story.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Blade Runner 2049” is a visually striking, surreal 6, perhaps earning cinematographer Roger A. Deakins his 14th Oscar nomination and first Academy Award.

06

“Flatliners”

Susan Granger’s review of “Flatliners” (Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems)

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Hollywood has suffered a disastrous summer because the major studios have raided the franchise larder too many times – and this unnecessary remake is one of the worst.

Back in 1990, Joel Schumacher’s psychological horror/thriller picture was not only Oscar-nominated but made the top 20 box-office hits of the year. Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon, it had a provocative premise which is repeated this time ‘round.

Riddled by guilt over her role in the drowning death of her sister, medical student Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page) is morbidly curious about the afterlife. Determined to use an MRI to map brain activity after ‘death,’ she initiates an experiment in which her heart is stopped, she ‘dies’ and is then revived.

Afterwards, Courtney discovers that her consciousness has been expanded and her abilities amplified; she not only plays Debussy on the piano and bakes bread but also diagnoses her patients’ symptoms with unerring accuracy, recalling everything she’s every learned.

Naturally, her colleagues – insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), cocky Jamie (James Norton) and driven Marlo (Nina Dobrev) – are determined to have their turn in the chair in the hospital’s sublevel C ‘lab’. Only reluctant, ex-fireman Ray (Diego Luna) tenaciously abstains.

Inevitably, there’s a traumatic price to be paid for dabbling in this ethical/moral/legal dilemma – and it’s horrifyingly high.

Working from Ben Ripley’s shallow, utterly predictable, rebooted script, Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) lumbers the contrived, repetitive narrative along at a slow pace, delivering only banal imagery and minimal, generic scares.

In homage to his role of Nelson Wright, Kiefer Sutherland makes a brief appearance as the authoritative, gray-haired dean of the medical school.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Flatliners” is a tepid 3. Why bother?

03

“Victoria & Abdul”

Susan Granger’s review of “Victoria & Abdul” (Focus Features/Working Title)

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Undiscovered until 2010, this revelatory historical footnote chronicles an improbable friendship that enhanced the elderly British monarch’s final years.

Bookended by a prologue and conclusion set in India, the period dramedy begins with a vivid depiction of how widowed, 81 year-old Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) was not only weary but also utterly bored by her perpetual Royal duties.

Until one evening at a dinner, she spots Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a tall, turbaned Muslim servant recently dispatched to London from Agra, along with a companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), to present Her Royal Highness with a ceremonial coin for her 1887 Golden Jubilee.

Ignoring protocol, guileless Abdul makes not only makes eye contact with the Queen but also kisses her shoe. The next day, she imperiously demands that he and Mohammed remain at court.

Before long, Abdul becomes HRH’s “munshi” (teacher/spiritual advisor) and constant companion, piquing her curiosity about the Urdu language and the tenets of Islam. “We are here for a greater purpose,” he tells her.

As Empress of India, she wants to know more about that country and culture, which increasingly appalls her bigoted, jealous courtiers, headed by Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), and repressive, resentful son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Prince of Wales, who subsequently became King Edward VII.

Inevitably, complications arise, revolving around Abdul’s marital status and health, but they remain close friends for 14 years – until Victoria’s death in 1901.

Freely adapted from a book by Shrabani Basu, Queen Victoria’s handwritten journals in Urdu and Abdul Karim’s private notebooks, it’s somewhat superficially scripted by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), who fails to flesh out Abdul’s character, discreetly skirting the obvious racial and colonial aspects.

But by coupling Judi Dench with Bollywood’s Ali Fazal, director Stephen Frears (“Philomena”) ignites an irresistible chemistry. And Dame Judi, who played a younger version of Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), commands every scene she’s in.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Victoria & Abdul” is a sublimely subtle, ravishing 7 – aimed specifically at an older audience.

07

“American Made”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Made” (Universal Pictures)

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As Gary Spinelli’s story unfolds, it’s obviously “based on a true lie,” meaning that the facts have been embellished but several things are clear.

Back in the 1980s, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) was a hotshot TWA pilot from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who sneaked Cuban cigars in his luggage and relieved his in-flight boredom by flipping a few switches and careening around the wild blue, as the resulting turbulence abruptly awakened sleeping passengers.

His antics caught the attention of shady CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who gave Seal his own Cessna and offered a monetary deal he couldn’t refuse, despite incredulously inquiring “Is all this legal?”

According to glib Schafer, legitimacy was not a worry, including Seal’s initially surreptitiously snapping surveillance photographs and, later, covertly smuggling cocaine and AK-47s across the border into Central America.

Working as a double agent, he consorted with Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Majia) of Colombia’s Medellin cartel, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (Alberto Ospino) and the Nicaraguan Contras.

Collaborating with Doug Liman, who launched the “Bourne” franchise and scored with Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” proves a perfect match between director and star, interweaving authentic news footage and touching on real-life corruption and a scandal that allegedly involved Lieut. Col. Oliver North and the National Security Council, along with President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

Flashing his ingratiating smile, Cruise, as Seal, had no trouble convincing his at-first skeptical wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) that she shouldn’t have a problem with all the cash coming in – so much, in fact, that all the closets in their house were stuffed with it, along with numerous duffels hidden in underground crypts.

The only fly-in-the-ointment turns out to be Lucy’s rotten hillbilly brother (Caleb Landry Jones), who catches the attention of their local sheriff (Jesse Plemons).

FYI: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cross Creek Pictures decided to cut a scene showing Seal with then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, who was receiving a lap dance at a strip club, reportedly because they didn’t want the film to be overly political.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Made” is an edgy, engaging, adrenaline-charged 8, proving once again America is the land of opportunity.

08

“Stronger”

Susan Granger’s review of “Stronger” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

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This is the inspiring, true story of 28 year-old Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs in the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Hard-drinking Bauman, who worked in Costco’s deli department, wasn’t running that April day. He was a spectator, waiting at the finish line for his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), a hospital administrator, who was running for charity. They’d broken up and he was hoping they’d get back together.

Unfortunately, he just happened to be standing right next to where one of the terrorists had planted a pressure-cooker bomb. It blew off both his legs at the knee. Both Bauman and his cowboy-hat wearing rescuer, Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), became the symbols of “Boston Strong,” thrust into the spotlight by the media.

On hearing that her son was a double-amputee, Bauman’s overprotective mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), with whom he still lived in Chelmsford, was devastated, turning to cigarettes and booze. Meanwhile, his father (Clancy Brown), uncle (Lenny Clarke) and the rest of his working-class family yell, curse and trade insults with one another.

Although Bauman vowed to do whatever it takes to walk again, during the ensuing months of agonizing rehabilitation, he was forced to deal with seemingly insurmountable mental and physical hurdles, many thrust on him because he’d become famous.

“I’m a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?”

At a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup game, when Erin pushes him out onto the ice in his wheelchair to wave the American flag, the ensuing noise and chaos give him a panic attack.

Based on the memoir by Jeff Bauman and Brett Witter, it’s scripted by John Pollono and directed by David Gordon Green, who focus on relationships and, predictably, conclude with footage of the real Jeff and Erin.

Although Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a memorable performance, it’s too bad that a disabled actor wasn’t given the chance. Years ago, William Wyler cast Harold Russell, who lost his hands in a training accident during W.W.II, as a veteran in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

FYI: This is the second film about the Boston Marathon bombings, following Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day,” focusing on the manhunt for the culprits.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Stronger” is a steadfast 7, revealing the kind of faith it takes to survive this kind of ordeal.

07

“Battle of the Sexes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Battle of the Sexes” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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This sports drama serves up the story behind the famed 1973 exhibition tennis match between 29 year-old Billie Jean King and 55 year-old Bobby Riggs, who bragged he could beat any woman player in the world.

As reigning Wimbledon champion two years running, King (Emma Stone) was in her prime, while brash, gambling-addicted Riggs (Steve Carell) was Wimbledon’s champion back in 1939.

So with great fanfare on September 30, King was carried, like Cleopatra on a chaise, into the Houston Astrodome by bare-chested guys, while Riggs, wearing a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket, arrived by rickshaw. At the net, King handed Riggs a squirming piglet, confirming his male chauvinist status.

Squaring off for the $100,000 prize, it was a milestone for the women’s liberation movement. At that time under the aegis of condescending Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), women on the tournament circuit earned far less than men. So King was determined to get respect and equal pay for female players.

Meanwhile, off the court, Billie Jean was experiencing a different dilemma: her sexual awakening. Although married to supportive Larry King (Austin Stowell), she was attracted to hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  While facing a palimony suit in 1981, King became the first famous athlete to come out as a lesbian.

Fresh from her Oscar-winning “La La Land,” Emma Stone added 15 pounds of muscle to her slim frame, nailing King’s competitive style, aided by her athletic stunt-double, NCAA’s Kaitlyn Christian. Supported by Steve Carell, who captures Riggs’ desperation, they’re a winning match.

Working from Simon Beaufoy’s subtle screenplay, husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) cleverly capture the tenor of the time, utilizing actual footage of Howard Cosell’s insidiously sexist commentary and offering glimpses of fashion designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) and ‘World Tennis’ magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).

FYI: According to Forbes, Emma Stone is now the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Battle of the Sexes” aces an empowering 8, focusing on the social change that swept the country during the last quarter of the 20th century.

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“The Lego Ninjago Movie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lego Ninjago Movie” (Warner Bros.)

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Bookended by two live-action sequences featuring Jackie Chan as the Chinatown curio store narrator, this animated feature delves once again into the world of plastic toys.

Indeed, it’s almost a duplicate of “The Lego Movie” (2014), redundantly utilizing a wise guru and a sought-after Ultimate Weapon that turns out to be common household object.

In the Asian island city of Ninjago, there’s this average high school student, Lloyd (Dave Franco), whose absentee father is wicked, ego-maniacal Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), making Lloyd an outcast and giving him obvious Daddy issues.

Riffing on the Luke Skywalker “Star Wars” mythology, it revives the combative good son/evil father concept – with Lloyd’s overprotective mother KoKo (Olivia Munn) serving as the voice of reason.

Meanwhile, martial arts Master Wu (Jackie Chan) has been training a color-coded, elemental Ninja team to battle pompous, four-armed Warlord Garmadon, who happens to be his brother. And Lloyd, as the Green Dragon Ninja, secretly trains with them.

There’s the Red Fire Ninja Kai (Michael Pena), the Blue Lightning Ninja Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), the Black Water Ninja Nya (Abbi Jacobson), the half-human/half-robot White Ice Ninja Zane (Zach Woods), and the Black Earth Ninja Cole (Fred Armisen). They’re Power Ranger-like warriors.

Eventually, the Ninjas must team up with Lord Garmadon to save their metropolis from annihilation by “Meowthra,” a giant house cat.

Utilizing a script filled with pop-culture puns and gags that have been cobbled together by a veritable gang of screenwriters, directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan rely on Animal Logic animation – with original directors/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller now taking producer credits.

FYI: Ninjago is pronounced two different ways. When referring to the fictional city, it’s nin-JAH-go. But when it’s used as a battle cry, it sounds like, “Go, Ninja, Go!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lego Ninjago Movie” is a frenetic 5, familiar family fare that becomes another brick-building commercial.

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