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“Fifty Shades Freed”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fifty Shades Freed” (Universal Pictures)

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The final episode of this inexplicably successful, soft-core porn franchise opens with billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) dazzling his bride, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson),with an ostentatious display of his staggering wealth: his jet, his yacht, his chef, etc.

“This is yours?” she gasps. “No, ours,” he smoothly replies.

Yet their gilded honeymoon in Paris and the Cote d’Azur is marred by a relic that Anastasia brings to their union – namely, her desire to continue working in book publishing.

“You can’t keep me in a cage,” she tells her domineering husband.

Integral to that is the threat posed by Ana’s former boss, smarmy Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), who lost his job and is out for revenge – along with Ana’s ire at Christian’s architect (Arielle Kebbel) – initiating fist fights, car chases and kidnapping.

Plus, Ana’s desire to get pregnant clashes with Christian’s selfish wish to keep her affectionate attention totally for himself. Just think of the dilemma of trying to keep a curious toddler away from the ‘forbidden’ Red Room with its handcuffs, whips, chains, butt plugs and nipple clamps!

While the predictable plot plods on, cue a strange nocturnal interlude when Ana and Christian, sleepless in Seattle, meander into the kitchen and devour each other, along with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Based on the pulpy, S&M novels by British author E.L .James (a.k.a. Erika Mitchell), this installment is again adapted by her husband Niall Leonard and directed by James Foley, who propels the protagonists through glossy musical montages to an improbable happily-ever-after.

Fortunately, there are no plans to film James’ fourth novel which tells the same flimsy fairy tale from Christian Grey’s perspective.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fifty Shades Freed” is a tiresome 2, particularly ill-timed with the focus on female empowerment in #MeToo and #Time’sUp.

02

“12 Strong”

Susan Granger’s review of “12 Strong” (Warner Bros.)

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This contemporary war picture celebrates the brave soldiers who fought against Al Qaeda -without probing too deeply into the political justification or disillusioning aftermath of their heroic efforts.

Green Beret Operational Detachment Alpha 595 consists of a 12-member U.S. Special Forces squad sent into mountainous northern Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. Their mission is to take the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif within three weeks – before the winter snow hits.

Led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena), they’re informed that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.”

Accompanied by tribal warriors under Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) – who later became Afghanistan’s Vice-President – they ride on horseback across 40 miles of Taliban-controlled territory, liberating small villages along the way and calling in B-52 airstrikes when necessary.

The evasive military tactics and calculated maneuvers are made clear – with New Mexico’s terrain subbing for the harsh landscape of Afghanistan.

The only philosophical insight into the on-going struggle occurs when the American contingent, known as Task Force Dagger, is bluntly told: “You will be cowards if you leave and you will be enemies if you stay.”

Based on Doug Stanton’s based-on-real-events book “Horse Soldiers” (2009), it’s generically and somewhat redundantly adapted by Ted Tally & Peter Craig and directed with mucho machismo as a debut feature by Nicolai Fuglsig, a Danish photojournalist who served as a war correspondent in Kosovo.

FYI: Capt. Mitch Nelson is based on real-life Green Beret Mark Nutsch, and Chris Hemsworth’s real-life wife, Elsa Pataky, plays Nelson’s wife.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “12 Strong” is a ferocious 5, filled with fiery action, procedural frustration and inevitable anguish.

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“Den of Thieves”

Susan Granger’s review of “Den of Thieves” (STX Films)

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Opening with the (unverified) data that Los Angeles is “the bank robbery capital of the world,” there’s also the alarming alert that a heist occurs every 48 minutes.

At the Major Crimes unit of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien (Gerard Butler) is obsessed with these statistics and determined to catch recently paroled Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), whose band of former Marines-turned-bank robbers, known as “The Outlaws,” are planning to rob the downtown branch of the Federal Reserve for $30 million in unmarked bills.

Musing, “We’re dealing with a different animal here,” Big Nick plants a mole within Merrimen’s organization, the hapless young bartender/getaway driver Donnie Wilson (O’Shea Jackson Jr., a.k.a. real-life son of Ice Cube), who, unfortunately, blows his cover at a Japanese hibachi restaurant.

Meanwhile, gang member Enson Levoux (Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent) enlists his Outlaw cohorts to intimidate his daughter’s prom date. And Big Nick routinely cheats on his wife, Debbie (Dawn Olivieri), who walks out on him, taking their two young daughters. Ho hum!

Screenwriter Christian Gudegast makes a less-than-auspicious directorial debut after previously working with brutish Gerard Butler on “London Has Fallen,” perhaps because, in addition to the clichéd dialogue, almost every aspect of his contrived, pointless plot is so obviously influenced by Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Den of Thieves” is a familiar 4, a long, loud, logistical crime caper that curdles.

04

Maze Runner: The Death Curse”

Susan Granger’s review of “Maze Runner: The Death Curse” (20th Century-Fox)

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In this epic finale to the YA trilogy, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his buddies have survived a perilous dash through a mysterious labyrinth called The Glade and subsequent trek through a harsh desert wasteland, overseen by a quasi-governmental agency called WCKD (World in Catastrophe: Killerzone Experiment Dept.).

Apparently, they’re immune to the deadly Flare pathogen that has decimated much of the population in this dystopian future.

So WCKD, personified by sinister scientists Ava Page (Patricia Clarkson) and Janson (Aiden Gillen), has captured 28 of the untainted, incarcerating them like human guinea pigs in a laboratory in the shiny metropolis known as The Last City, using their blood to concoct a cure for the viral pandemic.

Although Thomas is torn between two women – turncoat Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and forceful Brenda (Rosa Salazar) – he is particularly concerned with rescuing his comrade Minho (Ki Hong Lee).

To that end, Thomas and his Glader pals Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), along with a battered resistance fighter Lawrence (Walton Groggins), decide to break into the walled fortress, dodging mechanized spiders and evading zombie-like Cranks, revealing a ‘surprise’ character previously presumed dead.

Based on James Dashner’s best-sellers, it’s simplistically adapted by T.S. Nowlin and visual effects supervisor-turned- director Wes Ball, who pay scant attention to character development. Instead, its two-and-a-half hour running time is bloated with visceral, often meaningless chases, shootouts, stunts and action sequences.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Maze Runner: The Death Curse” is a frenzied 5, a finale featuring fearless teenagers who turn out to be the world’s last best hope.

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“Letters from Baghdad”

Susan Granger’s review of “Letters from Baghdad” (Vitagraph Films)

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My best bet this week is this award-winning spy thriller, the timely, true story of intrepid explorer Gertrude Bell (1858-1926), who influenced Middle Eastern history in the early 1900s.

More influential than her colleague T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), adventurous Bell helped map part of the Arabian Peninsula after WWI. She established the Iraq Museum, which housed artifacts and antiquities of Mesopotamia and was ransacked during the American invasion of Baghdad in 2003.

Assembled from period photographs, archival footage and fake ‘talking-head’ interviews by New York documentarians Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, it chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, the daughter of a British baronet who became the first woman to receive highest honors in Modern History at Oxford University.

Superbly narrated by Tilda Swinton from Bell’s own copious correspondence, it follows her solo journey, commanding a 17-camel caravan across the uncharted Arabian desert for 1,500 miles as the first female freelance archaeologist, befriending Bedouins, sheikhs and other tribesmen, learning the local dialects, history and customs.

“I have cut the thread,” Bell wrote. “You will find me a savage, for I have seen and heard strange things and they color the mind.”

Because of her extraordinary knowledge of the Hashemite dynasties and fluency in Arabic, Persian, French, German and English, she was the only woman given diplomatic status at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

That led to Winston Churchill’s invitation to participate in the 1921 Cairo Conference, where Syria’s ruler Faisal was her choice to become King of the newly formed country of Iraq, attempting to encompass Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

“Oil is the trouble, of course,” Bell slyly noted. “Detestable stuff.”

If her exotic saga sounds familiar, perhaps you saw Werner Herzog’s unfortunate “Queen of the Desert” (2015) with Nicole Kidman as Bell.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Letters from Baghdad” is a vividly insightful 7. See it at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10, in Westport Town Hall auditorium. Tickets are $10 to benefit the Westport Cinema Initiative in partnership with Westport READS.

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“The Insult”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Insult” (Cohen Media Group)

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Ziad Doueiri’s intriguing political drama is Lebanon’s submission for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film and winner of the 2017 Venice Film Festival’s Best Actor Award (Kamel El Basha).

In contemporary Beirut, there’s always an undercurrent of tension between Lebanese Christians and Palestinian Muslim refugees. Which is why a casual insult is blown ‘way out of proportion.

When Yasser (Kasmrel El Basha), a Palestinian construction foreman, attempts to repair a broken gutter on a balcony belonging to Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian car mechanic who is watering his flowers, he’s splashed with water.

Then, when Yasser offers to fix an illegal drainpipe, belligerent Tony slams the door in his face, upsetting his very pregnant wife (Rita Hayek). That leads to an insulting vulgarity and Tony’s insistence on an abject apology, which Yasser initially refuses to do.

In reluctant placation, Yasser goes to the garage, just as Tony is listening to Bachir Gemayel’s anti-Palestinian speech. Carried away by the hate-filled verbiage, Tony tells Yasser he wishes Ariel Sharon had “wiped them out,” which incites Yasser to punch Tony, breaking a few of his ribs.

Their feud escalates exponentially until it spirals out of control, becoming a media circus. Eventually, the antagonists are embroiled in a legal showdown.

Tony’s case is ruthlessly fronted by Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salame), an experienced lawyer, while young Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud) righteously mounts Yasser’s defense.

As the drama unfolds, both sides are convincing since there’s enough blame to go ‘round.

In Lebanon, Christians comprise over 40% of the population; many of them bitterly resent the approx. 450,000 Palestinians who have sought refuge there, now comprising more than 10% of the country’s residents.

Co-written by Joelle Tourma and director Ziad Doueiri, the story revolves around the notion of sincerity versus stability, as the underlying sectarian grievances are aired.

In Lebanese with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Insult” is an explosive 8 – a tense courtroom thriller.

08

“Proud Mary”

Susan Granger’s review of “Proud Mary” (Sony/Screen Gems)

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Everything old is new again! In the 1970s, the ethnic subgenre of action thrillers, starring black actors, was known as “Blaxpolitation” films. Exemplified by “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones” and “Foxy Brown,” they were originally aimed an urban audiences, but their appeal spread.

Now – with the rise of fighting female characters – Taraji P. Henson (“Hidden Figures,” TV’s “Empire”) takes the titular role as a ruthless African-American assassin who feels guilty about one particular hit for the Boston Mob.

Yet after killing his father, Mary does little to keep orphaned Danny (Jashi Di’Allo Winston) out of trouble – until she discovers him unconscious in an alley. Taking him home, she goes after the culprits who left him there.

That involves Mary’s boss Benny (Danny Glover), his feckless son Tom (Billy Brown) and, above all, her desire to discard the badass lifestyle that she’s sick of.

Working from a simplistic script, cobbled together by Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman and Christian Swegal, director Babak Najafi (“London Has Fallen”) never gets Mary’s Maserati in gear. The pacing’s poor and the lighting’s either too bright or too dark.

Plus, John Fogerty’s adamant that his 1969 hit song with Creedence Clearwater Revival and the title character have nothing in common, noting: “It irks me when people capitalize on the popularity of my music and the good will it has earned for their own financial gain…They simply picked the title and wrote a completely fictitious story around it.”

Fogarty clarified: “I wrote the song about a mythical riverboat, cruising on a mythical river, in a mythical time. It was obviously a metaphor about leaving painful, stressful things behind for a more tranquil and meaningful life…Far from a story about killing people for money.”

FYI: The term “Blaxploitation” was coined by former publicist-turned-Los Angeles’ NAACP head Junius Griffin.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Proud Mary” is an un-focused, faulty 4. Talented Taraji P. Henson deserves a better franchise.

04

 

“Paddington 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Paddington 2” (Warner Bros.)

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Set a few years after Paddington sprang onto the silver screen, the red-hatted, blue-raincoated, marmalade-scarfing bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) has settled into a new life in London’s Windsor Gardens with his adoptive parents, the Browns (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins).

Since his beloved Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), an Anglophile who still lives in Darkest Peru, is celebrating her 100th birthday, Paddington has decided to send her an expensive book of famous London landmarks, described as a “popping book” by Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), the antiques dealer.

But before Paddington can earn enough money, the rare book is stolen by prissy Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), an aging actor who has been reduced to doing dog food commercials.

What dastardly devious Phoenix knows that Paddington doesn’t is that the seemingly innocuous pop-up book is really a secret treasure map, so he frames Paddington for the theft.

Dispatched to prison, Paddington finds himself living with intimidating inmates like the snarling chef, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) – or “Nuckel’s” as it’s misspelled on his tattooed fists – whom Paddington wins over with – what else? – marmalade!

Meanwhile, the émigré bear’s friends and family (Julie Walters, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin) work diligently for his release, much to the dismay of Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the neighborhood’s odious Britain-firster.

Continuing his witty live-action adaptation of Michael Bond’s series of whimsical children’s books, writer/director Paul King, teaming with co-writer Simon Farnaby, carry on the elaborately endearing slapstick silliness, replete with imaginative interludes and inventive, colorful sets.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Paddington 2” is an adorable, thoroughly enjoyable 8, reinforcing the sublime belief: “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”

08

“Hangman”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hangman” (Lionsgate/Saban Films)

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It’s sad when iconic actors like Al Pacino (“The Godfather,” “Serpico,” “Sea of Love”) stoop to meaningless whodunits like this exercise-in-futility, directed by stuntman-turned-actor Johnny Martin.

The prologue shows retired homicide detective Ray Archer (Pacino) sitting in his vintage car, doing crossword puzzles in Latin (because he was once an altar boy). Suddenly, he’s sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver in a blue truck. After a high-speed chase, the culprit is caught.

Flash forward one year – and Ray becomes involved in a string of grisly, gruesome murder committed by a vicious serial killer who strings up his victims and, using their corpses, carves alphabet-letter clues via the titular children’s word game.

Apparently, Ray’s badge number and that of his stoic buddy Will Ruiney (Karl Urban), whose wife was murdered a while ago, were found whittled into a classroom desk in a school near the first victim’s body.

Although the setting is Monroe, Georgia, joining them is intrepid New York Times investigative reporter Christi Davies (Brittany Snow), who was once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, although her ride-along presence is obviously unwelcome.

The trio’s sleuthing takes on added pressure when they realize that there will be a new victim every 24 hours, unless they can follow the clues and capture the psychopathic perpetrator.

Saddled with stereotypical characters and an illogical, inanely convoluted script by Michael Caissie, Phil Hawkins and Charles Huttinger, director Johnny Martin (“Vengeance: A Love Story”) relies on fast-paced action scenes to propel past the idiotic banter that passes as dialogue and the police procedural plot.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hangman” is a forgettable 4 – a rotten riddle.

04

“Phantom Thread”

Susan Granger’s review of “Phantom Thread” (Focus Features/Annapurna Pictures)

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Daniel Day-Lewis is one of our finest actors; each performance is precisely researched, resulting in absolute authenticity.

Here, he plays eccentric, self-absorbed Reynolds Woodcock, a discerning British fashion designer. In the 1950s, lavish haute couture was revered by rich women and royalty, along with the couturiers.

Impeccably groomed, imperious Woodcock demands that his elegant London townhouse home/office revolves around his craftsmanship and whims. Breakfast is silent: no crunching toast or idle chatter.

Woodcock’s domineering perfectionism is supported by his omnipresent spinster sister/business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), who dismisses his mistresses when he tires of them.

When he spies a young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), in a countryside cafe, Woodcock impulsively decides she will be his new muse/model, proclaiming her broad shoulders, small breasts and belly are “perfect.”

So Alma moves into his hermetic existence, proud to have the strength and stamina to stand quietly for hours while he meticulously uses her lithe body to fit gorgeous gowns, often stitching secret embroidered messages into the fabric’s lining.

She explains, “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return: every piece of me.”

But, soon, her passive/aggressive presence becomes increasingly disruptive within the House of Woodcock. Which leads to an overt, psychopathic twist, even as Woodcock, who is haunted by the memory of his mother, indulges in a petulant, jealous pique when a longtime patron buys from a rival.

It’s all about a tortured, misogynistic artist who puts his creativity above all else, psychologically controlling and abusing those around him, following the same idiosyncratic theme as Darren Aronofsky’s ill-fated “Mother!”

Auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”) has crafted a bizarrely superficial Gothic romance, paying sinister homage to Alfred Hitchcock, whose wife’s name was Alma.

Woodcock’s character was inspired by monastic Cristobal Balenciaga and Charles James, who was known to punish misbehaving couture clients. And kudos to production designer Mark Tildesley, costumer Mark Bridges, and music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Phantom Thread” is a strange, shallow 6 – despite charismatic Daniel Day-Lewis’s immersive performance.

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