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“Thor: Ragnarock”

Susan Granger’s review of “Thor: Ragnarok” (Marvel Studios/Disney)

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For comic-book fans, Marvel’s hammer-throwing hero is back – in the BEST Thor movie yet!

Since “Ragnarok” means apocalypse, the story picks up where the last one left off: Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, is trying to save Asgard, his home planet, only to discover that he and his treacherous brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston) have a power-hungry older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), Goddess of Death.

After tracking down their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who is determined to die in his native Norway, the challenge facing Thor and Loki is reclaiming Asgard from Hela, who once led Asgad’s armies for Odin. At their first meeting, Hela shows her supremacy by smashing Thor’s hammer.

Travelling through a space portal, hammerless Thor is then captured and imprisoned on a parallel world called Sakaar. That’s where he meets the demented, flamboyant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the hard-drinking warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and a cheery, giant rock golem named Korg (Taika Waititi).

Since high-stakes gladiator matches are the Grandmaster’s passion, Thor’s long, blond locks are trimmed before he finds himself in the ring, facing “a friend from work” who turns out to be The Incredible Hulk, another key member of the Avengers.

After they do battle, Thor recruits Hulk and his alter-ego, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to take on Hela, a formidable opponent – with antlered battle headgear covering her jet-black hair.

Adroitly helmed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi, it’s irreverently scripted by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, revealing Chris Hemsworth’s surprising flair for physical comedy, making Thor more natural and appealing than he’s been in the past.

As for cameos: In a zany, identity-confusion ‘play’ at the very beginning, Matt Damon impersonates Loki, Sam Neill mimics Odin with Chris Hemsworth’s brother Liam as a fake Thor – plus, later, Benedict Cumberbatch pops up as Dr. Strange.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Thor: Ragnarok” is a silly, superhero 7. It’s thunderful!

07

“All I See Is You”

Susan Granger’s review of “All I See Is You” (Open Road)

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The concept of blindness has resulted in some fascinating films, starting with Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” in 1931, followed by “A Patch of Blue,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Wait Until Dark” and “Scent of a Woman” and “Ray” – to name a few. Unfortunately, “All I See Is You” isn’t one of them.

Set in Bangkok. Thailand, this psychodrama revolves around Gina (Blake Lively), who is legally blind, and her husband James (Jason Clarke). After visiting an ophthalmologist (Danny Huston), Gina undergoes a corneal transplant to restore sight to her right eye after her vision was damaged in an automobile accident many years earlier.

As Gina begins to perceive the world around her more clearly, she recognizes that not only is their apartment a disappointment but so is her husband. When they go to Barcelona to visit Gina’s sister Carla (Ahna O’Reilly) and her artist husband Ramon (Miquel Fernandez), who take them to a grotesquely garish peep show, Gina also realizes that certain aspects of her sexuality are unfulfilled.

Once they get back to Bangkok, Gina’s increasing dissatisfaction with their apartment results in Jason’s agreeing to buy a house, one that can accommodate a child. And her distress about not getting pregnant is relieved after an encounter with a hunky Daniel (Wes Chatham), whom she recognizes as a fellow swimmer from the gym.

Of course, the fact that increasingly insecure James was told by another specialist that his sperm were not viable complicates matters – along with mysterious difficulties involving Gina’s steroid eye drops.

Working from a weak script he wrote with Sean Conway, director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “World War Z”) flounders, while Blake Lively’s limited acting range is disappointing.  The most memorable scene chronicles Gina’s visit to Bangkok’s famed flower market when she first begins to recognize colors.

In retrospect, Lively was far more effective in the terror thriller “The Shallows,” “The Age of Adaline” and TV’s “Gossip Girl.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “All I See Is You” is a tepid 3 – with an absurd conclusion.

03

“Walking Out”

Susan Granger’s review of “Walking Out” (IFC Films)

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Montana-born filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith craft this father/son saga as a tense survival story, reminiscent of “The Revenant” and “Mountain Men.”

It begins as 14 year-old David (Josh Wiggins), who lives with his divorced mother in Texas, reluctantly arrives in snowy Livingston, Montana, to join his father, Cal (Matt Bomer), for their annual visit.

A rugged outdoorsman/hunter, Cal is determined to share his knowledge and love of the frigid wilderness with his iPhone-addicted son. He’s been meticulously tracking a moose so David can score his “first kill.” That rite-of-passage incites both edgy anticipation and fear in tongue-tied David.

“Never kill anything except for food,” Cal cautions as part of bonding with David. Cal’s resolve is intercut with vivid flashbacks to his own childhood 30 years earlier, when he went hunting with his father (Bill Pullman) and killed his first moose.

After hiking for hours through mountainous territory, David and Cal discover that the moose they’d intended to shoot was already killed – by a rogue grizzly bear, so Cal kills a bull elk instead.

As they’re hacking up the meat, David is attacked by a mother grizzly whose cub was killed by the same rogue bear. His hand badly injured, David climbs a tree. Desperately hanging onto his perch, David accidentally fires his rifle and the bullet shatters his father’s knee.

Unable to walk, Cal urges David to go for help, but David realizes that he cannot leave his critically wounded father alone. So he hoists Cal onto his back and treks down the mountain in a blinding blizzard, terrified that he won’t be able to find his way back to the tiny cabin where they’d spent the night.

Adapting a short story by David Quammen, Alex and Andre Smith, collaborating with cinematographer Todd McMullen, capture the majestic grandeur of the mountains and rare glimpses of wildlife.

In one scene, a curious young deer comes close to Cal’s face and licks it. According to Matt Bomer, that ‘real’ encounter was “a kind of spiritual experience. One of those things you hope you can just be in the moment for.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Walking Out” is a spare but incredibly sensitive 7.

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“Seder”

Susan Granger’s review of “Seder” (Hartford Stage)

 

Not since “Judgment at Nuremberg” have I seen a play as powerful and persuasive about how much guilt and responsibility an individual must bear for crimes committed or condoned by her.

Set in 2002 in Budapest, Hungary, it begins with elderly Erzsike (Mia Dillon) touring the House of Terror, a museum of war atrocities, and spotting her own photograph prominently displayed on the Wall of Murderers.

That night, Erzsike’s younger daughter, Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), has invited an American friend, David (Steven Rattzii), to their apartment to show them how to celebrate the Jewish Seder, or Passover.

Years ago, Erzsike rejected her Jewish heritage but she’s agreed to this uneasy family gathering in hopes of reuniting with her long-estranged older daughter Judit (Brigit Huppuch).

The Seder ceremony recalls the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. As the dinner ritual unfolds, sinister family secrets are spilled, revolving around Judit’s outrage over Erzsike’s involvement while working as a typist for the AVO (Hungary’s KGB).

“I did the best I could,” Erzsike says, defensively. “I just did what I was told.”

“A good person stands up for humanity,” self-righteous Judit retorts in a fiery exchange.

Heading the superb acting ensemble, Mia Dillon delivers a disturbingly textured portrait, miraculously transforming into her younger self in flashbacks, relating how she risked exposure by altering records of innocent prisoners and why she sexually succumbed to her predatory boss Attila (Jeremy Webb), who arranged her marriage to the late Tamas (Liam Craig).

Playwright Sarah Gancher, collaborating with director Elizabeth Williamson, illuminates this true story with intensity, vision and imagination. The authenticity is amplified by Nick Vaughan’s evocative set, Ilona Somogyi’s costumes, Marcus Dilliard’s lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound.

In addition, the Hartford Stage provides fascinating information about post-WWII Hungarian history in the playbill and on wall displays.

“Seder” has just received The Edgerton Foundation’s New Play Award – and it’s richly deserved.

“Seder” runs through November 12 at the Hartford Stage. For tickets, call the box-office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

“Jane”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jane” (National Geographic)

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National Geographic’s new documentary about Jane Goodall reveals how the acclaimed naturalist arrived in Gombe, Tanzania, in the 1960s and chronicles her fascination with chimpanzees.

What makes it extraordinary is director Brett Morgen’s use of rare 16-millimeter footage shot by Jane’s husband, Hugo van Lawick. Previously thought to be lost, it was discovered in 2014 in a storage unit and has been cleverly intercut with recent interviews with the legendary primatologist as she reflects on her remarkable life.

“From the age of 10, I dreamed of going to live with wild animals and write books about them,” she notes. “Nobody knew anything about chimpanzees. There were no methods or field research. To learn about chimps meant being with them and gaining their trust. So that’s what I did.”

Barefoot, petite Jane Goodall met Hugo van Lawick when the Dutch photographer was dispatched by National Geographic to chronicle her remarkable work in the Gombe Wilderness:

“Proof from van Lawick’s footage – showing chimpanzees kissing, embracing, holding hands, grooming one another, begging for food, showing they have a dark side to their nature, but also compassion, love and altruism, clearly illustrating that they can be angry, sad and die of grief – finally forced scientists to admit that we’re not the only creatures on the planet with personality, mind and emotions. We are part of the animal kingdom, not separated from it.”

While van Lawick was capturing on film significant moments of Jane’s interaction with the chimpanzees, they fell in love and were married in 1964. Soon after, they had a son, nicknamed “Grub,” who accompanied them everywhere, even when van Lawick was transferred to Africa’s Serengeti. But Jane’s heart remained with her work in Gombe; they eventually separated in 1974, sharing custody of Grub.

Now 83, Goodall still travels around the world, advocating for conservancy, and she served as an advisor on “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jane” is an enthralling, enlightening 8 – an absolute delight!

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“Suburbicon”

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

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One of the great disappointments of the Fall season is this collaboration between George Clooney and the Coen brothers, revolving around skullduggery in the suburbs in the summer of 1959.

Like Levitttown, Suburbia is a peaceful, prefab, homogenized community with affordable homes and friendly neighbors. Until an African-American couple, the Mayers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke), move in with their young son Andy (Tony Espinosa).

Their presence arouses so much ire that a racist petition is circulated and a riot erupts. The police are summoned, but no one does anything about the bigotry and torment that they’re forced to endure.

Meanwhile, across the backyard, there’s a home invasion. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his paraplegic wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose’s twin sister Margaret (Julianne Moore) are tied up and chloroformed by thugs (Alex Hassell, Corey Allen Kotler) – and Rose dies.

But when Gardner and Margaret refuse to identify the crooks in a police lineup, plucky Nicky begins to suspect that his dour father and saucy aunt are involved in his mother’s death. That’s confirmed when he catches them having sex in the basement.

Nicky’s misgivings are shared by Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaacs), a savvy insurance claims investigator who quickly realizes that the accident that confined Rose to a wheelchair and now her death don’t seem like coincidences, particularly since dim-witted Gardner’s Mob debts have been mounting.

Foolishly re-written by director Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov (“The Monuments Men”) from a 1986 screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen, it’s not funny enough to be a satirical black comedy nor cohesive enough to qualify as a subversive crime caper.

Significantly, there’s no link between the Lodges’ and the Mayers’ storylines except that their amiable sons play baseball together. Indeed, “Suburbicon” fails on almost every level except stylish production design; James D. Bissell’s work is a superb recreation of the cheery, cloistered, superficially idyllic Eisenhower era.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Suburbicon” is a sour, substandard 4, a murky melodrama.

04

“Jungle”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jungle” (Momentum Pictures)

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There are two extraordinary aspects to Australian director Greg McLean’s latest adventure: 1) it’s based on a true story, and 2) diminutive Daniel Radcliffe actually starved himself to emaciation to achieve authenticity.

In 1981, when 21 year-old Yossi Ghinsberg (Radcliffe) leaves his family in Tel Aviv to spend a year traveling in the United States and South America, they fear the worst – perhaps with good reason when he joins a backpacking expedition in Bolivia.

Friendly, gullible Yossi is befriended in La Paz by enigmatic Karl Ruchprecter (Thomas Kretschmann), an Austrian who spins tales about lost Inca tribes and rivers of gold, hidden deep in the Amazonian jungle.

Impulsively, Yossi convinces two other trekkers – Kevin Gale (Alex Russell), an American photographer, and bespectacled Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson), a gentle Swiss schoolteacher – to join them on the Tuichi River expedition.

As their trail-leader, Karl claims not only to know the rainforest territory but he also shows them a map, indicating just where they’ll walk. Arrogantly, he sets a gung-ho pace which soon causes enough friction that the original foursome decide to split into pairs.

While Karl and Marcus, whose feet are badly blistered, continue to trudge on-foot, impatient Kevin opts to build a raft to sail down the rapids, accompanied by Yossi. But shortly after they’re launched, the rickety raft crashes into a rock, and Yossi is thrown into the churning water.

Wearily dragging himself to shore with a bad head wound, Yossi is all alone – with Kevin nowhere to be found. It is man-versus-nature, as Yossi encounters one ominous obstacle after another, grievously suffering, both physically and mentally.

Based on Yossi Ghinsberg 2005 memoir, it’s scripted by Justin Monjo, who fails to properly flesh out any of the supporting characters, concentrating totally on Yossi and his drug-enhanced hallucinations.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jungle” is a survivalist 6 – and kudos to Daniel Radcliffe for rising to this grueling wilderness challenge.

06

“The Snowman”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Snowman” (Universal Pictures)

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When the director of a bizarre murder mystery admits that something went wrong, it’s worth noting. Here’s what Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) told the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation:

“We didn’t get the whole story, and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing. It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing, so you don’t see the whole picture.”

Alfredson added that the greenlight to shoot came “very abruptly,” and about 10-15% of the screenplay wasn’t even filmed. Which makes for a lot of plot holes.

Based on Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s pulpy 2007 thriller, the formulaic script is credited to three screenwriters – Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Soren Sveistrup – none of whom have an ear for dialogue or conveying the disorienting time-frame changes.

The intrigue revolves around Norway’s most famous detective, chain-smoking, vodka-swilling Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), whose chaotic private life involves an art dealer ex, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her sulky teenage son, Oleg (Michael Yates), and new partner, Matthias (Jonas Karlsson).

Joined by the homicide department’s rookie, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Hole is on the trail of a serial killer who leaves a snowman figure outside the houses of his chosen victims, all of whom recently terminated pregnancies. Depicted by cinematographer Dion Beebe, the grisly dismemberments are gruesome.

In the meantime, Katrine’s scrutinizing a smarmy industrialist, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons) who is overseeing Oslo’s bid for the Winter Games; he enjoys taking photos of scared young women on his mobile phone. There’s also creepy doctor Idar Vetleson (David Dencik).

Last but not least, another dissolute, alcoholic detective, Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer), is investigating the same killer’s crimes in the city of Bergen nine years earlier. (Kilmer’s dialogue was dubbed by another actor because Kilmer is recovering from cancer and could not talk intelligibly.)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Snowman” is a twisted, turgid 2 – with a conclusion that makes no sense whatever, yet sets up for a sequel.

02

“The Florida Project”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Florida Project” (A24)

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Making its debut at the New York Film Festival, Sean Baker confounds with this incomprehensibly exuberant celebration of an insolent, six year-old delinquent and her irresponsibly volatile mother.

Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince) and 22 year-old, heavily tattooed Halley (Bria Vinaite) live at Orlando’s Magic Castle, a garish, $35-a-night motel, situated on a highway just outside tantalizing Disney World.

Day-after-day, irrepressible Moonee hangs out with two friends, her neighbor Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her grandmother at the nearby Futureland Inn. Unsupervised, they spend most of their time making mischief, cadging free meals and begging for money to buy ice cream.

One day, when Moonee, Scooty and Jancey are exploring some deserted condos, they set them on fire. After questioning her son about the vandalism, Scooty’s decent, hard-working mother (Mela Murder) discovers the truth, forbidding him to hang out with Moonee anymore and severing her friendship with increasingly shrill, surly Halley.

Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the calm, compassionate motel manager, is a pivotal presence, maintaining his equilibrium even when the unruly kids try his patience. There’s a memorable scene in which he protectively dispatches a creepy pervert who is hanging around the picnic tables.

Best known for making “Tangerine” (2015) on his iPhone, director Sean Baker is obviously fascinated with exploiting the bleak, anti-social underbelly of economic inequality around The Magic Kingdom. Writing with Chris Bergoch, Baker delineates the tawdry transients’ precarious, often profane lifestyle.

But Halley’s narrative arc makes no sense whatever. While she ostensibly lost her job as a stripper because she refused to provide customers with backroom ‘extras,’ she shows no hesitation turning tricks in the motel, sequestering Moonee behind the shower curtain in a bathtub filled with toys.

Discovered on Instagram, Bria Vinaite’s acting lacks depth and range, reducing her abrasive Halley to increasingly trashy, self-conscious vulgarity, diluting much of the poignancy in Moonee’s story.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Florida Project” is a shrill, sleazy 6, perhaps the most depressing film of the year.

06

“Breathe”

Susan Granger’s review of “Breathe” (Bleecker Street/Participant Media)

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There are two recent films in which British filmmakers honor their ancestors: Gurinder Chada related her family’s India legacy in “Viceroy House” and now Jonathan Cavendish chronicles his parents’ lives in “Breathe.”

In 1957, it was love-at-first-sight when charming Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) saw socialite Diana Blacker (Claire Foy). Despite her family’s misgivings, they married and took off for Kenya, where Robin worked as a tea-broker. Enjoying an idyllic life, Diana was pregnant when Robin contracted polio.

Paralyzed from the neck down with perhaps three months to live, Robin could only breathe through a ventilator. Determined to return to England, Claire relocates Robin to a polio ward, strictly supervised by Dr. Entwhistle (Jonathan Hyde).

Miserable in that sterile confinement, Robin yearns to go home but it’s not possible until Claire confers with Dr. Khan (Amit Shah), who tells her that Robin’s respirator can work anywhere but, if it stops for just two minutes, Robin will die.

Eager to improve his quality of life, devoted Claire has Robin moved to a country home she’s purchased. There, he can not only be with his wife and son but also his friends; one is Oxford don/amateur inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), who builds him a wheelchair equipped with a portable respirator.

Working with Dr. Clement Aiken (Stephen Mangan), director of the Disability Research Foundation, after soliciting a grant from Lady Neville (Diana Rigg), they work resolutely to free other polio sufferers from prison-like hospital confinement, a groundbreaking achievement.

Utilizing a glibly superficial, stiff-upper-lip script by William Nicholson (“Unbroken”), motion-capture actor Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings,” “Planet of the Apes”) makes his directorial debut, relying far too much on confusing, inconsistently paced time-frames and gauzy, manipulative sentiment.

FYI: Apparently, Serkis was drawn to the story because his sister suffers from MS. And producer Jonathan Cavendish co-founded the London-Based motion-capture studio, Imaginarium Productions, with Andy Serkis in 2011.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Breathe” is an inspirational, yet flawed 5, lacking the compelling depth of Stephen Hawkings’ saga “The Theory of Everything.”

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