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“Anastasia”

Susan Granger’s review of “Anastasia” (Broadhurst Theatre)

 

Snowflakes fall as the doomed family of Tsar Nicholas II and his family frolic in the palace in St. Petersburg. Then comes the Revolution in 1918, and the Bolsheviks slaughter them, one-by-one – except 17 year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, who somehow escapes the massacre.

Skip ahead to 1927, when Anastasia (Christy Altomare) – suffering from amnesia and dubbed Anya – takes up with ambitious, young proletariat Dmitry (Derek Klena) and his mentor, paternalistic Vlad (John Bolton). They’ve devised a get-rich-quick scheme to claim that Anya is Anastasia, something that she herself doesn’t believe at first.

After hours of Henry Higgins-style tutoring, haunting dream sequences and the recollection of a lullaby hidden in a music box, Anastasia is ready to travel to Paris to be presented to her beloved Nana, the elegant Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), who fled to France along with other White Russians.

To add a note of danger, Anya’s being pursued by Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a suspicious Soviet officer. And Caroline O’Connor injects humor as the Dowager’s confidante, flirtatious Countess Lily.

Unless you’re an impressionable tween, you’ll probably come out singing the sumptuous scenery – because that’s the most impressive aspect of the show. Designed by Andrew Dodge, the immense set is stunning, particularly the imaginative train carriage, encompassing Aaron Rhyne’s amazing landscape projections. And Linda Cho’s period costumes are authentic, including Tsarina Alexandra’s tiara.

Unfortunately, Stephen Flattery’s insipid music and Lynn Ahrens’ serviceable lyrics are almost immediately forgettable, as is Terrence McNally’s dutiful libretto. So director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey visually dazzle, ingeniously moving the cast like swirling, sparkling Swarovski crystals.

FYI: If the story’s familiar, you probably saw the fanciful 1997 animated version with Meg Ryan voicing Anastasia or, better yet, Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning 1956 adaptation with Yul Brynner.

Tucked into the program, there’s a postcard on which audience members can jot down what they’d do on their journey with the hashtag #onmyjourney. Given my druthers, I’d reinstate Rasputin and his bat Bartok.

 

“Their Finest”

Susan Granger’s review of “Their Finest” (STX Entertainment)

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During World War II, both in England and America, there was a strong sense of purpose. Today, we live in a world that is not only notoriously fractured but also highly ambiguous – with a breakdown of many traditional virtues and values. Which is why a nostalgic romantic comedy like this resonates with those who remember.

During the savage London Blitz in 1940, advertising copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is recruited by the British Ministry of Information to work with the film division to bring “a woman’s touch” to bolster morale. Britain wants the United States to enter the war and is relying on cinematic propaganda to convince recalcitrant Yanks, particularly women.

Since Caitrin’s injured husband Ellis (Jack Huston) is a frustrated painter, her paycheck comes in handy, even though she’s told “Of course, we can’t pay you as much as the chaps.”

Partnered with sexist screenwriters Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), Caitrin pitches a purportedly true story about patriotic twin sisters, Rose and Lily Starling (Lily & Francesca Knight), who stole their father’s boat in Southend and crossed the English Channel to help evacuate wounded soldiers at Dunkirk.

Problem is: her embellished story doesn’t jibe with what really happened. When there’s a difference between “truth” and “facts,” the filmmakers are given the mandate: “authenticity informed by optimism.”

With the help of aging thespian Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), the movie-within-the-movie turns out to be great fun, involving Jeremy Irons in a self-satirizing cameo, along with a strong ensemble cast that includes Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Rachael Stirling.

Adapted by Gabby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, it’s helmed by Danish director Lone Scherfig (“An Education,” “Italian for Beginners”), who should have sped up the pace a bit.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Their Finest” is a sly, bittersweet 7 – with a tasteful feminist twist.

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“Oslo”

Susan Granger’s review of “Oslo” (Vivian Beaumont Theater/Lincoln Center)

The phone rings and, suddenly, representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization are talking with officials from the government of Israel through a remarkable conduit in Oslo, Norway.

J.T. Rogers’ new play imagines how Norwegian Foreign Ministry diplomat Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) and her husband, sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), deftly organized the series of high-level, top-secret meetings that culminated in the signing of the historic 1993 Oslo Accords.

A riveting political drama revolves around these clandestine gatherings in which the unlikely participants not only negotiated peace terms but also did impersonations and told jokes. Their diligence led to the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chief Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in front of then-President Bill Clinton.

According to director Bartlett Sher, the idea ignited when Norway’s U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen told J.T. Rogers the largely unknown background history.

The initial encounters with lower-ranking officials take place at the Borregaard Estate, a chateau near Oslo, where even-tempered Mona and excitable Terje act as neutral hosts, while the cook (Henny Russell) delights the famished guests with fluffy waffles.

What made these talks work – when others failed – was utilizing the academic theory of gradualism, rather than totalism, which, as Terje explains, is rooted in the personal, not the organizational. Basically, that meant that each point of contention was addressed separately, by the participants as individuals, not as spokesmen for the sides they represented.

“It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are,” he says. And, indeed, the cross-cultural friendship that these disparate men established in Oslo over a period of nine months continued.

The various locations are delineated on the stark set designed by Michael Yeargan with crimson-cushioned benches on the floor circling the stage. Kudos to costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Peter John Sill and Marc Salzberg and projections by 59 Productions.

Admittedly, its almost three-hour length could use some judicious editing, but, as an ensemble presentation, it’s a multifaceted gem!

Disneynature’s “Born in China”

Susan Granger’s review of Disneynature’s “Born in China” (Walt Disney Company)

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This G-rated Disneynature documentary focuses exclusively on animal species unique to China: pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, snow leopards, Chiru antelope and red-crowned cranes, a traditional Chinese symbol of good fortune and longevity.

Educational, it’s filled with spectacular landscapes and extraordinary close-ups of animal activity, centering on three specific families over the span of a year, beginning and ending in the spring.

In the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, attentive Ya Ya is a first-time mother, raising her curious cub Mei Mei in a forest habitat, where solitary adult pandas consume 40 pounds of bamboo each day. Until vivacious Mei Mei can quickly climb a tree, making her safe from predators, Ya Ya must watch over her.

Nearby, there’s a mischievous troop of golden snub-nosed monkeys. Tao Tao is an adolescent male who is being forced out of his family fold to learn to fend for himself. Rebellious, he joins an all-male sub-group, dubbed the “Lost Boys.” Parents should know there’s a huge predatory goshawk that swoops in, determined to devour Tao Tao’s little sister.

Then, thousands of miles away on the craggy highlands of the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province, there’s majestic Dawa, an elusive snow leopard, representing one of the endangered species. Hunting wild goats, mountain sheep and belligerent yaks, she’s raising two little cubs while facing ever-present danger from other ferocious leopards, as a snarling rival triggers an ominous territorial challenge.

Directed by ecologically-conscious Lu Chuan of China’s Shanghai Media House, it’s scripted by Lu, David Fowler, and renowned British nature filmmakers Brian Leith & Phil Chapman (BBC’s “Wild China” series). Barnaby Taylor’s orchestral score incorporates Asian instruments, like a Tibetan horn, Mongolian fiddle and Chinese dulcimer. It’s cross-cultural diplomacy at work.

Like most Disney films, it anthropomorphizes adorable animals in order to teach life lessons, yet I found it curious that Disney chose John Krasinski, not a woman, to narrate this story about animal mothers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Disneynature’s “Born in China” is a suspenseful yet sedately spiritual 7, as the circle of life continues.

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“Unforgettable”

Susan Granger’s review of “Unforgettable” (Warner Bros.)

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When David Connover (Geoff Stults) takes up with Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) after his divorce from Tessa (Katherine Heigl), he has no idea about the can of mean-spirited worms he’s opening.

As this tepid psycho-sexual thriller begins, battered Julia is being interrogated as the only suspect in the murder of her abusive ex-boyfriend, Michael Vargas (Simon Kassianides), against whom she once got a restraining order.

Skip back six months to when Julia left San Francisco to begin a new life in Foothill, a (fictional) Southern California suburb, with her fiancé David and his young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice).  A former Wall Street hotshot, hunky David has just opened a boutique microbrewery in his hometown.

But when icy, embittered Tessa – Lily’s possessive mother – sees how happy he is with amiable Julia, she’s devastated. Her intuitive vulnerability is heightened because she has never been able to satisfy the expectations of her own rigid, perfectionist mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd).

We’re told that Julia doesn’t use Facebook, which is bizarre since she was an editor for an online literary publication in San Francisco. But that leaves a portal so Tessa can cyberstalk her, shrewdly creating a fake FB profile and utilizing it to contact Julia’s ex, as her devious revenge plot takes shape.

“Everyone’s got a weird ex, but this Psycho Barbie is something else,” warns Julia’s best friend (Whitney Cummings). “You need to come back home with me.”

Working from screenwriter Christina Hodson’s implausibly convoluted script, longtime producer/first-time director Denise Di Novi never alludes to skin color or class, cleverly casting blond, beautifully Botox’d Katherine Heigl as the sinister, sadistic, sociopathic villain.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unforgettable” is a flimsy, frustrating 4 – and quite forgettable.

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“The Lost City of Z”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lost City of Z” (Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street)

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Based on David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction best-seller, this saga chronicles the incredible adventures of a status-seeking British soldier, Col. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who explored the Amazon River a full century ago.

Dispatched in 1906 by the aristocratic Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett’s mission is to map the dangerous, uncharted realms of eastern Bolivia, where it borders with Brazil.

Thrashing through the South American rainforest with his Army comrades, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), plus requisite guides and porters, he discovers not only the source of the Rio Verde River but also tribal pottery and carvings, indications of an ancient city and long-lost civilization hidden somewhere in the dense foliage – and he is determined to find it.

Driven by this mystical, near-maniacal obsession, Fawcett learns a great deal about anthropology and endures an excruciating second expedition in 1911, accompanied by another explorer, scornful James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who becomes a dangerous liability.

Meanwhile, back in England, his dutiful wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and children become accustomed to his long absences. Eventually, his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) decides to join his third expedition in the 1925; they were never seen or heard from again.

As foretold by his indigenous guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello): “For you, there is no escape from the jungle.”

This quest concept started seven years ago with Brad Pitt. Several incarnations later, it’s chronologically adapted and referentially directed by James Gray (“The Immigrant”) with scenes subtly suggestive of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Yet cinematographer Darius Khondji never even comes close to John Boorman’s expansive, atmospheric imagery in “The Emerald Forest.”

Problem is: there’s little emotional involvement or critique of England’s patronizing imperialism, topics which intrigued Werner Herzog in “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lost City of Z” is a sprawling yet superficial 6. As Fawcett says, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

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“The Promise”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Promise” (Open Road Films/Survivor Pictures)

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Because of strong ties with the Turkish government, American presidents have never acknowledged the Ottoman Empire’s systematic annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1918 as “genocide.”

So this sprawling, historical epic begins in 1914 as Mikael Boghosian  (Oscar Isaac), an ambitious, young apothecary in Siroun, a small southern Turkish village, is betrothed a local girl so he can use her dowry to attend medical school in Constantinople, promising to marry her once he’s a doctor.

In cosmopolitan Constantinople (now Istanbul), naïve Mikael moves in with his father’s cousin, a local merchant, and meets vivacious, Paris-educated Ana Kasabian (Charlotte Le Bon), who is tutoring his nieces. Since Ana lives with an angry American journalist, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an ill-fated romantic triangle takes shape.

When Ottoman Turks enter World War I as allies of Germany, a classmate’s bribe gets Mikael a medical school deferment. But when anti-Armenian violence erupts, he’s sent to forced labor on the railroad.

When Mikael escapes, he returns to war-ravaged Siroun, reluctantly marries his fiancée, then hides in a mountain cabin. Meanwhile, inquisitive Chris Myers is chronicling the atrocities inflicted on the Armenian population, dispatching them to American newspapers via the Associated Press.

By this time, the contrived romantic rivalry subplot should be on a back burner. Unfortunately, it isn’t. So the real-life slaughter is trivialized into an awkward, overtly manipulative melodrama.

Weakly scripted by Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), it was financed by the late Armenian entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian – with a distinguished supporting cast: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jean Reno, James Cromwell, Rede Serbedzija and Angela Sarafyan.

Since the film’s inception, there’s been controversy. “The genocide is burned into the soul of the Armenian diaspora,” explains Terry George “And until they get some kind of recognition, it’s not going to go away.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Promise” is an earnestly solemn 6. But it loses its focus, diluting the emotional impact of the harrowing massacre.

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“Tommy’s Honour”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tommy’s Honour” (Roadside Attractions)

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It’s not easy to make an enthralling movie about golf. Ron Shelton came close with “Tin Cup,” starring Kevin Costner. Now, Jason Connery has come up with this 19th century drama about pioneers of the modern game: Tom Morris, known as Old Tom, and his son, Young Tommy.

Supporting his family of six, Old Tom (Peter Mullan) works as humble greenskeeper, caddy and instructor at Scotland’s renowned Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, where he’s known as a superb competitor and four-time winner of the British Open.

So it’s not surprising that Young Tom (Jack Lowden) makes his auspicious amateur debut in 1868 at the age of 17. Rebelling against authority, epitomized by the United Kingdom’s stratified class division, he’s determined to become a professional golfer, rather than lugging clubs, teeing up balls and catering to ill-mannered aristocrats.

“Your station in life was set before you were born,” chides the club captain (Sam Neill).

Inspired by Kevin Cook’s 2007 book of the same name, it’s adapted by Cook with (his wife) Pamela Marin and directed by Jason Connery (son of Sean Connery), who utilizes the rugged magnificence of Scotland’s rustic links which form a stark contrast to today’s well-manicured courses.

Challenging Establishment tradition with innovation, they pivot the generational struggles between a dour, deferential father and a willful, ambitious son, throwing in additional conflict when Young Tom falls in love with Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond), a spunky older woman with a scandalous past.

Neither Mullan nor Lowden are real-life golfers, although Connery tries hard to disguise their ineptitude.

FYI: Old Tom designed 70 courses, including Carnoustie, Muirfield, Prestwick, Royal County Down and Royal Dornoch. Young Tom died at the age of 24 but still holds the title as youngest major champion of all time. Both father and son were inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tommy’s Honour” scores a slow-paced, sporting 6. Too bad it was released before Father’s Day because that’s when the marketing would have soared.

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“The Fate of the Furious”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Fate of the Furious” (Universal Pictures)

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The numbers tell the tale: the eighth installment of this long-running series revved up an estimated $532.5 million worldwide, setting a new record for an opening weekend.

Built around muscle cars, drag racing and the importance of family, this high-speed action thriller brings back Vin Diesel as gruff, monosyllabic Dominic Toretto, and it’s filled with spectacular, globe-spanning vehicular destruction.

In Havana, Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) interrupt their honeymoon so that he can race against the Cuban who tried to heist his cousin’s jalopy. Tinkering with the old car, Dom strips down the engine and installs a dangerous nitrous-oxide canister. You can already visualize what happens next.

Injecting vicious fuel, there’s a sociopathic supervillain, an icy hacker known as Cipher (Charlize Theron), who wants Dom to do a job for her. When he hesitates, she shows him something on her cellphone that changes his mind. What is it? We have to wait to find out.

Meanwhile, on a mission with lawman Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), his gang (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel) and Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to retrieve a powerful EMP device, Dom goes rogue and delivers it to Cipher.

So, shifting gears, they recruit Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a somewhat implausible twist since he was responsible for the death of original team member Han. Plus, there’s by-the-books Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood, resembling his clench-jawed father) and Helen Mirren as mysterious Magdalene.

Scripted by Chris Morgan and directed by F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton,” “The Italian Job”), there’s only one mention of Brian – a.k.a. Paul Walker, who died in a car crash in 2013 – cementing his spirit as an integral part of the gang.

FYI: There are no post-credit scenes so you don’t have to linger.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Fate of the Furious” is a slick yet shallow 6. So far, the “Fast and Furious” films have earned $4.4 billion worldwide, making it the most successful franchise in Universal’s history and the eighth highest-grossing film series.

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“Gifted”

Susan Granger’s review of “Gifted” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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If you’re searching for a fascinating, feel-good, family film with a provocative premise, choose “Gifted.”

Seven year-old Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), a child prodigy, lives happily in a coastal Florida trailer park with Uncle Frank (Chris Evans) and her one-eyed cat named Fred. But now it’s time for her to go to a real school and, hopefully, make some friends her own age.

Frank, a free-lance boat repairman, has home-schooled Mary. When he’s working or going out for an evening, Mary is cared for by Roberta (Octavia Spencer) a loving neighbor.

From the very first day, Mary’s astounding ability with numbers mystifies her first-grade teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slade), so the Principal (Elizabeth Marvel) recommends that Frank transfer Mary to an elite private school for gifted children – on full scholarship.

Problem is: Frank turns down the opportunity, saying he wants his young niece to lead have a normal, carefree childhood, unlike her mother/his sister, a brilliant mathematician, who committed suicide.

As the backstory unfolds, Mary’s wealthy grandmother, formidable Evelyn (Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan), from whom Frank has long been estranged, suddenly shows up, determined to take Mary to Boston, where her superior intellectual abilities can be properly challenged and cultivated at MIT. So a custody battle ensures.

Tom Flynn’s refreshingly original, often humorous screenplay is sensitively directed by Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer”), blending amusement with melodrama, adroitly avoiding sentimentality.

Some scenes are exquisite, like when Mary and Frank existentially discuss religion on the beach while the sun sets; it’s shown in silhouette as Mary climbs all over Frank, like he’s a jungle gym. Kudos to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, editor Bill Pankow and composer Rob Simonsen..

Endearing Mackenna Grace shows astonishing talent; she’s also Keifer Sutherland’s daughter on TV’s “Designated Survivor.” Chris Evans wisely jettisons Marvel’s Captain America paraphernalia to display compassionate conflict, while Octavia Spencer oozes warmth.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gifted” is a perceptively subtle, satisfying 7, packing an emotional punch.

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