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“Red Sparrow”

Susan Granger’s review of “Red Sparrow” (20th Century-Fox)

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When Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers a devastating injury, the Bolshoi will no longer pay for her Moscow apartment and care for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). That’s when her lecherous Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of Russia’s external intelligence agency SVR, makes her an offer she cannot refuse.

Her first assignment is to entice and betray an oligarch, luring him to her hotel room. What she doesn’t realize is that she’ll be raped and he’ll be assassinated. Ivan then tells her she knows too much and will be killed if she doesn’t work full-time for his agency.

She’s then referred to State School 4, where the sadistic Matron (Charlotte Rampling), utilizing ritual degradation and humiliation, teaches male and female recruits how to become a “sparrow,” adroit in psychological manipulation and seduction.

“You sent me to whore school,” defiant Dominika accuses Uncle Vanya, who looks alarmingly like Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is sent to Budapest to contact his secret asset, a high-ranking mole within the Russian government, code-named “Marble.” Steely, highly disciplined Dominika is dispatched there to weave a web of deception, earning his trust and discovering the mole’s identity.

Bearing tinges of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” along with “Atomic Blonde,” it’s confusingly scripted by Justin Haythe, based on the 2013 best-seller by ex-CIA operative Jason Matthews, and voyeuristically directed by Francis Lawrence (“Hunger Games” franchise), who indulges in far too much brutal, gratuitous violence in the torture sequences.

Grim and gruesome, it’s nevertheless made palatable by fearless Jennifer Lawrence’s audacious performance, plus stalwart support from Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds and Mary-Louise Parker.

FYI: Jennifer Lawrence’s coach was Kurt Froman, the former New York City ballet dancer who worked with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis on “Black Swan.” While you see Ms. Lawrence’s face and upper body, the American Ballet Theater’s Isabella Boylston serves as her dance double.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Red Sparrow” is a skewed 7, an exploitative espionage thriller.

07

“Annihilation”

Susan Granger’s review of “Annihilation” (Paramount Pictures)

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Following “Ex Machina,” writer/director Alex Garland has concocted an ominous sci-fi thriller drenched with a pervasive sense of foreboding and dread.

It begins as a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Lena (Natalie Portman), is interrogated by Lomax (Benedict Wong) in a hazmat suit. Displaying no emotion, she calmly explains how her military husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), was dispatched on a secret mission and disappeared.

Almost a year passes before he returns, looking bizarrely catatonic and experiencing convulsions. When Lena summons an ambulance, she’s mysteriously kidnapped along with her now-comatose, dying husband, who is placed in quarantine by federal authorities.

According to psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), after a meteorite strike, the swampland around a lighthouse on the Florida coastline has been surrounded by a glistening, inexplicable force field called the Shimmer, which is rapidly expanding. Although other teams have been sent in, Kane is the only one who ever emerged.

Suspecting some kind of alien abduction/extra-terrestrial intervention, Lena, who has Army experience, joins an expedition of intrepid female scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) who are determined to reach the symbolic lighthouse and find out what’s really going on.

Equipped with assault weapons, they infiltrate the luminescent Shimmer, encountering a horrifying series of violent, mutated creatures, like a shark-toothed alligator and screaming bear. Needless to say, many of them do not survive.

Based on the first book on Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling “Southern Reach” trilogy, it’s compelling, even if what passes for a complicated, metaphysical plot is often incoherent.

Working with production designer Mark Digby, cinematographer Rob Hardy, visual effects wizard Andrew Whitehurst, and utilizing Glenn Freemantle’s soundscape, Alex Garland has created a weirdly cerebral dome, a confounding biosphere filled with bizarre vegetation, crystalline trees and iridescent, metallic clones.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Annihilation” is a sinister, shimmering 6, challenging audiences with cosmic molecular science.

06

“Susan’s Oscar Predictions”

The Upcoming 90th Annual Academy Awards by Susan Granger

Oscars 90th Academy Awards

Oscars 90th Academy Awards

Sunday, March 4, marks Oscar’s 90th birthday – and “Out with the old, in with the new!” is the message the Academy has sent to its voters this year, as Jimmy Kimmel once again hosts.

Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) is the first African-American ever nominated as writer, director and Best Picture producer in the same year, while Dee Rees (“Mudbound”) is the first African-American woman honored for an adapted screenplay and Rachel Morrison is the first female nominated for Best Cinematography.

Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) is the fifth woman ever nominated in the directing category, and “Logan” is the first live-action superhero saga ever nominated for its screenplay.

This change is directly connected with then-Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ dismay over 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite. After inducting 1,700 new members in the past three years, the pool of 7,258 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters has been altered. It’s younger and more diverse, truer to America.

Hollywood has always reflected the tenor of the times, and Donald Trump’s election probably influenced why racial/gender-bending “Moonlight” won over lighthearted “La La Land.” If you look closely at the Oscar-nominated films, they’re far from simplistic depictions of good v. evil.

But Oscar’s walking on eggshells this year. More than half of the nine Best Picture nominees featured female-centric stories. Women were among the producers on six of those nine, and women had a hand in writing four of the 10 nominated screenplays.

The three most popular 2017 movies in theaters were “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Wonder Woman,” each driven by female characters.

#MeToo and #TimesUp movements could push the Academy to favor female-empowering films like the revenge drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the wry coming-of-age story “Lady Bird,” along with “Mudbound” and “I, Tonya.” Yet women still make up only 28% of Academy voters.

Hollywood’s spin doctors used to be masterful at pushing disgraceful conduct under the rug but – with the sheer volume of scandals this year many – many men are still reeling from the accusations that torpedoed the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer, among others. There’s no doubt that Hollywood is under scrutiny as never before.

While women are activated and thrilled with the long-overdue progress, some male industry players think there’s a witch hunt and feel the pendulum is swinging too far. Should voters celebrate ‘the work,’ or consider the person’s behavior beyond the work?

The Oscars have always been, in part, a popularity contest – and they’re quite volatile this year. Millions of dollars are at stake, along with massive egos. In an ideal world, the work should speak for itself, but we don’t live in an ideal world. So your guess may be as good as mine.

BEST PICTURE nominees are “Call Me By Your Name,” “Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Post,” “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

The Best Picture vote, unlike any other category, is preferential. Academy members rank their choices among the nine nominated films. The lowest scoring films are eliminated and votes re-allocated, until a majority of voters backs a single feature, making gauging later rounds very difficult since consensus overrides passion.

Given the divided field, it’s almost unimaginable that one film will get 50% of the 1st place votes needed to win outright. So the film that gets lots of 2nd place votes has an advantage over a divisive, more polarizing film, an “anything but that” movie.

With 13 Oscar nominations, odds overwhelmingly favor the luminous fantasy “The Shape of Water,” which is original, inspiring and uplifting, as a lonely, mute janitor abandons convention and finds a soulmate in a creature that society deems a monster.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” practically swept the Screen Actors Guild and has garnered a fervent following, yet Martin McDonagh was left out of the Director race – and voters either love this film or hate it.

“Dunkirk,” “Darkest Hour,” “Lady Bird” and “The Post” may not have enough support. Gay-themed “Call Me By Your Name” is problematic and “Phantom Thread” is pretentiously boring.

Although “Get Out” failed to land film editing and cinematography nods, which are the usual indicators, but I have an inkling that the timely, original, $4.5 horror-satire will triumph, perhaps closing the gap between popularity with movie audiences and acceptance by movie-makers.

It would be the third black-directed film to cop Best Picture in the last decade, following “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight” – and neither of those won Best Director.

And if you remember last year’s “La La Land” and “Moonlight” mix-up, it won’t happen again. PriceWaterhouseCooper’s has new protocols that ban the use of phones/social media backstage so their briefcase-toting accountants will not be distracted when handing out envelopes.

MY PREDICTION: “Get Out”

BEST DIRECTOR nominees are Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Phantom Thread”) and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”).

Veteran director Christopher Nolan has his first nomination, along with Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele. I’m eliminating Paul Thomas Anderson, who, frankly, doesn’t stand a chance; how he snagged a nod and Steven Spielberg didn’t is beyond my comprehension.

If Guillermo del Toro wins, he’d join Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Inarritu as the third Mexican-born director to win in the last decade. Oscar voters often like to split the Picture and Director awards so that both get honored. Will that will happen this year?

MY PREDICTION: Guillermo del Toro

BEST ACTOR nominees are Timothee Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Phantom Thread”), Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) and Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.).

Gary Oldman was nominated only once before – for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” so I think it’s his year. His Winston Churchill was beyond brilliant.

MY PREDICTION: Gary Oldman

BEST ACTRESS nominees are Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”), Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”), Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”) and Meryl Streep (“The Post”).

This is Meryl Streep’s 21st nomination and talented 23 year-old Saoirse Ronan will someday win an Oscar, just not this year. The closest contenders are feisty, fiery Frances McDormand and empathetic Sally Hawkins, who dazzled earlier last year in “Maudie.”

MY PREDICTION: Frances McDormand

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR nominees are Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”), Woody Harrelson (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Richard Jenkins (“The Shape of Water”), Christopher Plummer (“All the Money in the World”) and Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”).

Willem Dafoe’s hotel manager is a shot of warmth in an otherwise cold story, but I suspect Sam Rockwell’s bumbling, utterly despicable cop is more impressive, along with Woody Harrelson’s hapless Sheriff. Christopher Plummer’s last-minute replacement of Kevin Spacey is amazing, and Richard Jenkins’ portrayal tugged at my heart strings. Any man could win in very tough category.

MY PREDICTION: Sam Rockwell

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS nominees are Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”), Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”), Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread”), Laurie Metcalf (“Lady Bird”) and Octavia Spencer (“The Shape of Water”).

In our youth-oriented culture, it’s interesting that the average age of these five nominees is 55; the youngest is 47 year-old Mary J. Blige. Both Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf are best known for their TV and stage work, and they both play combative mothers who undermine their daughters while trying to help them.

MY PREDICTION: Allison Janney

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY nominees are “The Big Sick,” “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

While the thriller “Get Out” is ostensibly about a black photographer who must flee from his white girlfriend’s family, its scope transcends the horror genre with a compelling script that wastes no words or images, exposing deep racial unease in post-Obama America.

MY PREDICTION: Jordan Peele for “Get Out”

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY nominees are “Call Me By Your Name,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Logan,” “Molly’s Game” and “Mudbound.”

MY PREDICTION: James Ivory for “Call Me By Your Name,” continuing the acceptance of LGBT-themed films.

BEST FILM EDITING: “Baby Driver,” “Dunkirk,” “I, Tonya,” “The Shape of Water” and “
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Odds favor “Dunkirk’s” Lee Smith who intercut three narratives to shape the harrowing story of survival and resistance with stunning precision.

MY PREDICTION: “Dunkirk”

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY nominees are “Blade Runner 2049,” “Darkest Hour,” “Mudbound,” “Dunkirk,” and “The Shape of Water.”

Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”) is the first woman ever nominated in this category; she also did the cinematography for the current hit “Black Panther.”  Odds favor Roger Deakins, who has been nominated for an Academy Award 14 times, yet never won an Oscar.

MY PREDICTION: “Blade Runner 2049”

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS nominees are “Blade Runner 2049,” “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” “Kong: Skull Island,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

Four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri of Weta Digital enhanced the emotional depths of Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar, while leveraging depth of field to sculpt his realistic journey.

MY PREDICTION: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN nominees are “Beauty and the Beast,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk” and “The Shape of Water.”

MY PREDICTION: “The Shape of Water”

BEST COSTUME DESIGN nominees are “Beauty and the Beast,” “Darkest Hour,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Shape of Water” and “Victoria and Abdul.”

MY PREDICTION: “Phantom Thread”

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING nominees are “Darkest Hour,” “Victoria & Abdul” and “Wonder.”

It took Kazuhiro Tsuji three hours each day to mold Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill, using a combination of prosthetics along with makeup and a finely crafted wig.

MY PREDICTION: “Darkest Hour”

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM nominees are “A Fantastic Woman” (Chile), “The Insult” (Lebanon), “Loveless” (Russia), “On Body and Soul” (Hungary), and “The Square”(Sweden).

Real-world events could again tilt the scale, as “Foxtrot” examines the continuing conflict between Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers who man security check-points, while “The Insult” is a legal drama about Lebanon’s sectarian divide between Christians and Muslims. The current standoff with Vladimir Putin might eliminate Russia’s “Loveless,” and “In the Fade” looks at the rise of racist violence through a neo-Nazi who murders a German woman’s Kurdish husband a child. Which leaves the art world satire “The Square,” “A Fantastic Woman” about a Chilean transgender (played by transgender Daniela Vega), and “On Body and Soul,” the surreal love story of an autistic woman and an emotionally and physically crippled man.

MY PREDICTION: “A Fantastic Woman”

BEST DOCUMENTARY nominees are “Faces Places,” “Icarus,” “Last Men in Aleppo,” “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” and “Strong Island.”

I favor 89 year-old French filmmaker Agnes Varda who received an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards. Her prime competitor is “Icarus,” a timely look at state-sanctioned steroid use by Russian Olympians. Plus, there’s “Abacus” about a small family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown; “Last Men in Aleppo” honors civilian rescuers known as White Helmets; and “Strong Island” about the 1992 murder for an unarmed teacher.

MY PREDICTION: “Faces Places”

BEST ANIMATED FILM nominees are “The Boss Baby,” “The Breadwinner,” “Coco,” “Ferdinand” and “Loving Vincent.” Previously, only animators nominated in this category but, this year, the Academy opened nominations to members who had seen a majority of the 26 eligible movies, indicating when and how they viewed each film.

“Loving Vincent’ is perhaps the most unusual nominee, since each frame is hand-painted in oils in the style of Vincent Van Gogh, while Pixar’s poignant “Coco” explores death as a Mexican affirmation of remembering the past; its theme song “Remember Me” melts the heart.

MY PREDICTION: “Coco”

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE nominees are “Dunkirk,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Shape of Water,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

MY PREDICTION: ”The Shape of Water”

BEST ORIGINAL SONG nominees are “Mighty River” (“Mudbound”), “Mystery of Love” (“Call Me By Your Name”), “Remember Me” (“Coco”), “Stand Up for Something” (“Marshall”) and “This Is Me” (“The Greatest Showman”).

Last year, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek won for “City of Stars” from “La La Land.” If they win again, they’ll be the first songwriters to score consecutive victories since Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer won for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) & “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962).

MY PREDICTION: Justin Paul and Benj Pasek for “This Is Me.”

BEST SOUND EDITING nominees are “Baby Driver,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Dunkirk,” “The Shape of Water” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

MY PREDICTION: “Dunkirk”

BEST SOUND MIXING nominees are “Baby Driver, “Blade Runner 2049,” “Dunkirk,’ “The Shape of Water” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

MY PREDICTION: “Baby Driver”

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM nominees are “Dear Basketball,” “Garden Party,” “Negative Space,” “Lou” and “Revolting Rhymes.”

MY PREDICTION: “Dear Basketball”

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM nominees are “The Eleven O’Clock,” “My Nephew Emmett,” “The Silent Child,” “Watu Wote: All of Us” and “Dekalb Elementary.”

MY PREDICTION: “DeKalb Elementary”

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT FILM nominees are “Edith & Eddie,” “Heroin(e),” “Knife Skills,” “Traffic Stop” and “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405.”

Issue-oriented “Heroin(e)” grapples with the grim epidemic of drug addiction in Huntington, West Virginia, while “Knife Skills” outlines a Cleveland-based program teaching culinary skills to former convicts at a French restaurant doubling as a training facility. Tackling elder abuse, “Edith & Eddie” focuses on a Washington D.C-area couple, fighting to remain together. “Heaven is a Traffic Jam” profiles artist Mindy Alper, who loves sitting in her car in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And “Traffic Stop” reveals the ordeal of a 26 year-old black schoolteacher in Austin, Texas.

MY PREDICTION: “Edith & Eddie”

 

“The Pirates of Somalia”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Pirates of Somalia” (SP Releasing)

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After newspaper headlines and Tom Hanks’ “Captain Phillips” stirred interest in piracy and hijackings of cargo ships on the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa, this dramedy delves into the culture of Somalia and its precarious democracy.

Tired of receiving rejection letters from leading magazines, wannabe Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters) relishes a chance encounter in Toronto with his idol, revered newspaperman Seymour Tobin (Al Pacino), who urges him to find a crazy, compelling story and pursue it.

Having once written a term paper on Somalia, Bahadur borrows money from his mother (Melanie Griffith) to travel there, hoping to meet with its newly-elected President in Puntland in order to understand the complex socio-economics of the region, once known as a “land of poets,” where people resolved their disputes with language.

At the airport, Bahadur is met by his translator Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, Oscar-nominated for “Captain Phillips”), who advises him not to follow up on CBS News’ offer of $1,000 to anyone who can get hostage footage from a ship that’s been captured by Somali pirates.

So Bahadur begins his research by scheduling interviews with various Somali bigwigs, all of whom expect to be bribed with the local drug called khat, a chewable narcotic plant which can be easily purchased in the open marketplace. Since Bahadur’s a stoner, he understands this all too well.

Which is the film’s weakness. As portrayed by Evan Peters (TV’s “American Horror Story”), Bahadur is an annoying wiseass and, therefore, not as likeable and sympathetic a protagonist as one might wish, even though he eventually becomes an acknowledged ‘authority’ on Somalia.

Based on Jay Bahadur’s non-fiction “The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World,” it’s written and directed as a first-feature-film by Bryan Buckley, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for his short “Asad,” featuring Somali refugees.

While Buckley’s effectiveness often gets sidetracked by simplistic subplots and superfluous characters, his casting is authentic, even listing each actor’s Somali refugee status in the end credits.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Pirates of Somalia” is a simplistic 6, enhanced by another superb performance by Barkhad Abdi.

06

“Early Man”

Susan Granger’s review of “Early Man” (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate)

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With a filmography that includes “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit” and “Shaun the Sheep,” U.K.-based Aardman Animation specializes in Claymation, a labor-intensive form of stop-motion that uses figures made of clay.

Animators pose the figures for each frame – every movement, every gesture – with 24 frames for each second of film. For every shot, the seven-inch-tall silicone figures are bolted into place on cleverly detailed sets that stand about two-feet high. Mouth movements are synched to pre-recorded vocal tracts.

Claymation began back in 1897, as artists sculpted characters from modeling clay, then photographed them, painstakingly moving the figurines ever so slightly between each picture. When displayed in rapid succession, the pictures created the illusion of movement. Edison Manufacturing produced the first clay animation film, “The Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Dream,” in 1908.

Set sometime between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, Aardman’s most recent release takes place around Manchester, England, where the young Neaderthal Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) suddenly finds himself and his haplessly inept, rabbit-hunting clan on the verge of eviction from their once-isolated forest.

Greedy Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston with an exaggerated French accent) has dispatched his colonizing troops on bronze-armored mammoths to mine ore in their verdant valley.

So Dug’s cave-dwelling tribe’s future depends on winning a soccer showdown against Nooth’s formidable footballers.

Fortunately, Dug’s ragtag, inexperienced team is coached by Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams), who dreams of being a soccer star but isn’t allowed to play on sexist Lord Nooth’s team. Extensive training montages prove that she’s determined to prove herself on the pitch.

Utilizing quirky characters created by Nick Park, it’s superficially scripted by Mark Burton and James Higginson as the first prehistoric underdog sports movie. Too bad it’s not more original and inventive. All the sight/sound gags are predictable and formulaic, even clichéd, many stemming from “The Flintstones.”

The smartest and most memorable character is Dug’s sentient wild boar Hognob, whose grunts and snuffles supplied by director Nick Park.

On the Grange Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Early Man” is a silly 6, a primeval disappointment.

06

“The 15:17 to Paris”

Susan Granger’s review of “The 15:17 to Paris” (Warner Bros.)

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On Thalys passenger train 9364 bound for Paris on August 21, 2015, three brave Americans intercepted a terrorist who was determined to kill as many people as possible.

Their spontaneous heroism inspired Clint Eastwood not only to film their story but also to cast Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler as themselves.

Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone and Oregon National Guardsman Alex Skarlatos were vacationing in Europe with their childhood friend Anthony Sadler, who was studying for a kinesiology degree from Cal State, when a heavily armed gunman opened fire on their high-speed train.

With the help of French businessman Mark Moogalian, they subdued and disarmed 22 year-old Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasini), the Lebanese assailant. The Frenchman and three Americans subsequently received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, from President Francois Holllande at the Elysee Palace.

Following “Sully” about pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger and “American Sniper” about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, this marks the third film in a row in which Clint Eastwood has depicted real-life events, honoring ordinary people who have greatness thrust upon them.

Screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal had already adapted their inspirational story, when Eastwood asked the young men to play themselves, a concept that’s been done before. Jackie Robinson played the lead in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950) and World War II veteran Audie Murphy starred in “To Hell and Back” (1955).

Although they’d never taken acting lessons, all three immediately agreed, co-starring with experienced pros like Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer. Now, they’re eagerly pursing further acting jobs.

Unfortunately, there’s little to the script beyond basic exposition – nothing except adolescent flashbacks that would reveal the backstory or motivation of each of the participants.  Prior to the terrorism, they’d traveled to Rome, Venice and Berlin, roaming bars and discos, before deciding to go to Amsterdam, instead of Spain.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The 15:17 to Paris” is a re-enacted 5, an authentic historical event that was ripped from the headlines.

05

“Winchester”

Susan Granger’s review of “Winchester” (CBS Films)

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Supposedly “inspired by actual events,” this Gothic ghost story revolves around widowed Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren), who inherited a vast fortune from her husband, William, whose family founded the fabled Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven, Connecticut.

From 1864 until her death in 1922, Sarah supervised construction of an elaborate estate In San Jose, California, a project supposedly instigated by a New England seer to delay her own demise and, perhaps, calm the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles.

Deeply superstitious, Sarah would disappear each night to her “séance” room where spirits would guide her in designing new spaces. Eventually, there were 161 rooms with circular staircases leading nowhere, doors leading to sheer drops and other architectural oddities.

Windows contained 13 panes of glass, chandeliers had 13 crystals, and 13 nails were used in securing wood. Despite her oddities, Sarah’s construction crew adored her; many were paid triple their ordinary salary to insure their absolute loyalty.

As part of a power struggle within Winchester, where she was a 50% shareholder, reclusive Sarah, clad in mourning black, agrees to submit to a psychiatric assessment done by laudanum-addicted Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who has been bribed to declare her mentally unfit.

Sketchily written and directed by Australian twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig (“Jigsaw,” “Predestination”), it lacks tension and suspense, turning out to be more eerie than horrifying.

Curiously, Sarah Winchester’s true story is even more controversial, according to biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo (“Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester: Heiress to the Rifle Fortune”).

While Sarah came from a long line of woodworkers and believed in spiritualists, there was never any ‘gun guilt.’  “Nobody felt guilty about guns at the turn of the 20th century,” Ignoffo maintains. “Everybody used them and needed them.”

“The fundamental lie is that the building of the house went on 24/7,” she continues. “Mrs. Winchester didn’t even live in the house for the last 15 years of her life.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Winchester” is a tedious 3, a misfire.

03

 

 

“Black Panther”

Susan Granger’s review of “Black Panther” (Marvel Studios/Buena Vista-Disney)

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Exactly a decade after “Iron Man” launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a powerful, new superhero has arrived – and he’s sensational!

The warrior T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the Prince/protector of the fantastical African nation of Wakanda, an isolated, secretive kingdom that’s rich with Vibranium – the mythic ‘alien’ metal that comprises Captain America’s shield. This invaluable resource has enabled incredible technological advances including magnetic transfers, superconductors, and spaceships.

Following the death of his father in a terrorist attack, noble T’Challa must fight M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the rival Jabari tribe, to claim his heritage.

Then there’s the threat posed by predatory arms dealer/thief Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), whom T’Challa intercepts in South Korea, aided by a CIA operative (Martin Freeman).

Eventually, the fight for Vibranium has T’Challa facing off with villainous Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a swaggering former Navy SEAL from Oakland, CA. whose father was Wakandan.

Plus, there’s T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and his mentor, the spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), hiding a secret of his own.

The formidable female characters are T’Challa’s love interest, the beautiful War Dog spy Nakia (Lupito Nyong’o); his feisty little sister/gadgets guru, Shari (Letitia Wright); Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett); and Okoya (Danai Guyira), leader of his Dora Milaja security team.

Written with insightful wit by Joe Robert Cole (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) and director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), its complex plot delves into familiar themes like revenge v. justice, duty v. conscience and why identity matters.

Kudos to cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Oscar-nominated for “Mudbound”) for creating a visual feast.

The first African-American superhero to appear in American comics, Black Panther was created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four No. 52. Historical footnote: Black Panther appeared three months before the Black Panther Party formed during the Civil Rights Movement.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Black Panther” pounces with an exciting, exhilarating 8, an ambitious, socially relevant, Afro-futurist origin story.

08

“Peter Rabbit”

Susan Granger’s review of “Peter Rabbit” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Animation)

peter

The gentle, whimsical tales of Beatrix Potter’s beloved blue-jacketed bunny have been transformed into a ‘hip’ hybrid live-action/digital-animation adventure.

Mischievous Peter (voiced by James Cordon) habitually raids the vegetable patch that belongs to cranky Mr. McGregor (voiced by Sam Neill), accompanied by his neurotic cousin Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody) and younger sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (voiced by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, respectively).

One day after chasing Peter, elderly Mr. McGregor suffers a fatal heart attack, bequeathing the bucolic property to his fussy, fastidious great-nephew, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), an ambitious executive, passed over for promotion at Harrods, who plans to sell the Lake District farm and invest in his own toy store in London.

“I’ve got nothing against the countryside,” he says. “I just find it disgusting.”

Upgrading vegetable-patch security means not only evicting Peter and his family but also Pigling Bland (voiced by Ewen Leslie) and the amiable hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (voiced by Sia).

But plans change after Thomas meets lovely Bea (Rose Byrne), an artistic neighbor who has maternally befriended the reckless, rebellious rabbits who have lived together – without parental supervision – in a nearby burrow since old Mr. McGregor baked their father into a pie.

Adapted by Rob Lieber, working with director Will Gluck (“Easy A,” “Annie” remake), it’s flippant and frantically paced, as the furry, photorealistic, anthromorphic critters bounce to pop tunes and enjoy gross-out humor.

It’s a shame that their good intentions are thwarted by an unfortunate scene in which Peter and his friends deliberately pelt allergic McGregor with blackberries, mocking allergy-sufferers and trivializing food-induced anaphylaxis, a life-endangering condition.

After angry advocates and parents of children who suffer from similar food allergies urged a film boycott, Sony issued an apology about not being more aware and sensitive to this serious health issue.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Peter Rabbit” scampers in with a strained 6, as the silly slapstick gags get a bit too sadistic.

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“Sand on the Floor”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sand on the Floor”

SOTF POSTER 1

Documentary filmmaker Steve Rockstein reveals the spiritual history of Jews on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas through the DNA of the oldest Synagogue under the American flag.

Through indelible images and insightful interviews, Rockstein traces the Congregation’s Spanish Inquisition roots to the relevance of its uncertain future.

In the Prologue, Professors Jane S. Gerber and Judah M. Cohen relate the flight of Sephardic Jews to the Danish West Indies from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, while one of their descendants, Dorothy Isaacs, a Virgin Islander, focuses on the founding of the Synagogue in downtown Charlotte Amalie, detailing how the building is interwoven in the tapestry of her life.

The historical Synagogue is distinguished by its sand-covered floor. Its cherished origins can be traced back to when Jews were forbidden to worship and placed sand on the floor to muffle the incantations of their prayers. Some believe the sand symbolizes the Sinai Desert through which the Israelites wandered for 40 years after the Exodus, or the splitting of the Red Sea.

Yet no institution is devoid of conflict. In the 1950s, there was a schism between the Sephardic and Reform movement, resulting in a transitional period which evolved into the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas with progressively changing rabbinic leadership.

While the Synagogue and its close-knit, devoted followers tenaciously remain downtown, on the East End of St. Thomas, the growing popularity of Chabad Lubavitch presents a different perspective.

Rabbi Asher Federman and his wife Henya arrived on-island in 2005. Emphasizing Orthodox tradition, their goal is to provide a wide variety of educational, religious and social services.

Utilizing inventive camerawork, Steve Rockstein Investigates this diversity, examining – among other things – the sanctity of touch, as Henya observes: “Every handshake has the potential to become potent.”

“There is much more that unites us than divides us,” concludes Reform Rabbi Bradd Boxman, urging the two congregations to work together.

While Rockstein duly acknowledges how the two devastating 2017 hurricanes have challenged island living, his powerful Epilogue divulges this astutely observational filmmaker’s journey back to Judaism, 49 years after being targeted by a Jewish pedophile.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sand on the Floor” is an enlightening 8, lifting the spirit and nurturing the soul.

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SAND on the FLOOR a film by Steve Rockstein PREVIEW from Steve Rockstein on Vimeo.