“Letters from Baghdad”

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


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.


“The Insult”

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

The Insult Banner Cohen Media

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.


“Proud Mary”

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


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.



“Paddington 2″

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


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.”



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


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.


“Phantom Thread”

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


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.


“All the Money in the World”

Susan Granger’s review of “All the Money in the World” (Sony Pictures/Tri-Star)


Perhaps even more fascinating than this fact-based kidnap drama is how 80 year-old director Ridley Scott replaced scandal-riddled Kevin Spacey with 88 year-old Christopher Plummer as billionaire J. Paul Getty. After re-filming 22 scenes, Scott seamlessly edited old reaction shots with the new footage.

In 1973, bohemian, 16 year-old John ‘Paul’ Getty III (Charlie Plummer) was kidnapped in Rome. His frantic mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), was desperate to deliver the $17 million ransom the kidnappers demanded, but his grandfather declined to pay.

Instead, obstinate Getty summoned an ex-C.I.A. agent, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), the family ‘fixer,’ skilled in security and crisis management, to track Paul down.

(A pioneering oil tycoon, rapacious Getty was at that time the richest man in history. He paid no taxes because his global estate was in a charitable trust, allowing him to invest in art work and antiquities, many of which are on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.)

Notoriously frugal, he installed a pay phone for visitors at his baronial, 72-room British mansion. Elderly Getty icily claimed that, since he had 14 grandchildren, paying a ransom for Paul would encourage further kidnappings.

Italian crime syndicate operatives, a Calabrian faction of the Red Brigade, an urban terrorist organization, held the troubled teenager hostage in the countryside. At one point, the thugs cut off Paul’s right ear and mailed it to a Rome newspaper, as Cinquanta (Romain Duris) continued the negotiation.

Scripted by David Scarpa, based on John Pearson’s Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty (1995), it’s a tense, infamously true thriller/character study, never delving into sentiment or moral judgment. End credits acknowledge that certain historical scenes were fictionalized for dramatic effect.

FYI: Charlie Plummer is not related to Christopher. Paul Getty’s son, Balthazar, is an actor. And soon, FX will broadcast “Trust,” a mini-series depicting the same case.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “All the Money in the World” is a suspenseful 7, featuring a smoldering, persuasive performance by Christopher Plummer.


“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (Sony/Columbia)


This re-imagining of Robin Williams’ 1995 action comedy delights in its own right, as four archetypal teenagers, serving detention in the school’s storeroom, discover a vintage video game and decide to play, each assuming an avatar.

Brainiac nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff) picks Dr. Smolder Bravestone, football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) chooses zoologist Moose Finbar, egocentric Bethany (Madison Iseman) opts for ‘curvy’ cartographer Shelly Oberon, leaving angry, uptight Martha (Morgan Turner) as Ruby Roundhouse.

To their amazement, they‘re suddenly ‘grown up,’ inhabiting the bodies of their avatars. Insecure Spencer has become muscular Dwayne Johnson. Fridge turns into acerbic comedian Kevin Hart, whose duty is to tote their weapons in his backpack. Beautiful Bethany is appalled when she discovers she’s been transformed into pudgy Jack Black. And geeky Martha gets her groove on as rockin’ Karen Gillan.

After adjusting to the unexpected body-swap, their quest within the jungle game is to replace a green gemstone that’s been stolen from the eye of a giant jaguar statue. If they succeed, they can break the curse perpetrated by Dr. Bravestone’s smarmy former partner, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale).  And Nick Jonas appears briefly as a former pilot who’s been stuck in the game for more than 20 years.

What makes it work is how they defy their stereotypes, epitomized by the flawless casting. Dwayne Johnson oozes self-deprecating charm, while Jack Black captures the many nuances of Bethany’s annoying self-absorption.

Inspired by the work of children’s author Chris Van Allsburg, it’s scripted by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner and adroitly directed by Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence Kasdan, who worked as a screenwriter with Steven Spielberg on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You can spot the familiar connections.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a spirited 7, a fun-filled adventure that should appeal to the whole family.



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


Based on a visionary ecological concept by director Alexander Payne and his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor, this ambitious social satire soon becomes more of a slog than a sci-fi adventure.

Representing Everyman, mild-mannered Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is an occupational therapist at the Omaha Steak Company who, along with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), dreams of being able to afford the good life – someday.

As the world faces an overpopulation crisis, scientists develop an ingenious solution that can shrink humans to five inches tall. And, as a Norwegian doctor (Rolf Lassgard) points out, in a miniature world, money goes a lot further, meaning that an average, middle-class couple can live like millionaires.

Captivated by a pep talk from former classmate Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis) and seduced by the promise of luxuries beyond their wildest dreams, Paul and Audrey agree to undergo the controversial – and irreversible – procedure in Leisureland. But at the last minute, Audrey gets terrified, leaving Paul in the mini-world without her.

At this point, the intriguing tone changes completely.  The once-sharp ‘small’ humor disappears, along with the core premise, giving way to poignancy and, ultimately, predictability.

Paul is befriended by his hedonistic neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), whose ‘maid’ is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese refugee, limping on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. She introduces Paul to the impoverished ‘miniature masses’ who dwell in tenements outside Leisureland’s walls, changing his perspective of this so-called utopia.

Eventually, they wind up in Norway, where Paul learns that an ecological disaster is imminent. As this apocalypse looms, the once-fascinating shrinkage concept becomes irrelevant.

What a letdown from Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who scored with “Election,” “Nebraska,” and “About Schmidt”!  While Hong Chau is memorable in her sensitive supporting role, this is Matt Damon’s second ‘hapless loser’ failure in a row, following “Suburbicon.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Downsizing” is a disappointing 5. As one wag already quipped, “Honey, they shrunk the fun!”


“The Greatest Showman”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Greatest Showman” (20th Century Fox)


Hugh Jackman is sensational as the legendary huckster P.T. Barnum – but neither the script nor the music of this lackluster effort come close to Broadway’s “Barnum” (1980), starring Jim Dale.

Born in 1810, Phineas Taylor Barnum’s story begins with a quick glimpse of his poverty-riddled childhood and courtship of his beloved Charity (Michelle Williams).

When Barnum arrived in New York in 1834, he had a wife and two young daughters to support. After his bookkeeping job went bust, he cast around for something to do. Using money he didn’t have, he bought a decrepit museum on Broadway and Ann Streets, filled with stuffed oddities, like the Feejee Mermaid, a monkey carcass stitched to a fishtail.

When that novelty wore off, one of his daughters urged him to fill the hall with “something alive.” So Barnum hired 25”-tall Charles Stratton, who suffered from a pituitary deficiency, turning him into General Tom Thumb, and bearded Josephine Clofullia (Keala Settle), along with Chang and Eng, the original “Siamese Twins.”

A brilliant impresario, Barnum noted, “Without promotion, something terrible happens – nothing!”

His menagerie became so famous they were invited to meet England’s Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. While in Europe, Barnum became smitten with elegant soprano Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), “the Swedish nightingale.”

After his Museum burned to the ground, irrepressible Barnum partnered with a wealthy New Yorker (Zac Efron), who embarked on a scandalous romance with a trapeze artist (Zendaya).

Barnum eventually joined James A. Bailey to found Barnum & Bailey Circus under the big tent – with its legendary elephant star, Jumbo.

Working from a superficial, loosely structured, simplistic screenplay by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “Chicago”) and Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City”), it’s frantically and flamboyantly directed by Michael Gracey, whose inexperience is obvious.

Except for “This Is Me,” the soupy, forgettable songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won an Oscar (“La La Land”) and a Tony (“Dear Evan Hanson”).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Greatest Showman” is a starry-eyed 6. Showy, splashy and synthetic.