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“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

Susan Granger’s review of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (Sony Pictures)

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With a filmography that includes “Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life of Pi,” among others, Ang Lee is obviously an insightful director. He’s also innovative, utilizing new, high-tech technology in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”

Problem is: this time, he stumbles.

Adapted from Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel about a 19 year-old soldier who, while participating in the sensory overload of a lavish Destiny’s Child football halftime show, re-lives his combat experience in Iraq, trying to save his commanding officer (Vin Diesel) and questioning the concept of heroism that’s been thrust upon him.

Jittery William Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) and members of his Bravo Company have been brought to Dallas, Texas, for the 2004 Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game, as wannabe film producer Albert (Chris Tucker) tries to wrangle a movie deal with wealthy team owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin).

Meanwhile, Lynn’s distraught, guilt-riddled sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) tries to talk him out of returning for another tour-of-duty. Complicating matters further, Lynn connects with Faison (Mackenzie Leigh), a devoutly Christian cheerleader.

Reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” it delves into Lynn’s survivor’s guilt and PTSD, utilizing numerous flashbacks, as part of a band-of-brothers, men who have been deeply scarred by emotional trauma, yet bonded by battle.

Digitally filmed by cinematographer John Toll in 3-D at 4K resolution and a rate of 120 frames per second, it produces clear, crisp, ultra-realistic imagery, particularly in the foreground, while the background is out-of-focus.

It may be a technological marvel, but only two theaters in the United States – one in Manhattan and one in Los Angeles – are equipped to accommodate this R&D advancement.

In addition, this process requires the actors to forgo make-up, revealing every line, wrinkle and artifice. Miscast Steve Martin falls victim, his superficiality exposed. But straight-out-of-drama-school British Joe Alwyn makes an impressive screen debut with a convincing Texas drawl.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a fumbling 5, riddled with shallow dialogue, inconsistent satire and stilted pacing.

05

 

“Moana”

Susan Granger’s review of “Moana” (Walt Disney Studios)

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Gather the kids and let’s be thankful for “Moana” (pronounced Mo-ahna) – with songs co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”).

On Motunui in Oceania, teenage Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) lived in an idyllic, self-sustaining Polynesian community. But, as daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), she has been forbidden to travel beyond the barrier reef that surrounds their isolated island.

When she discovers her ancestors’ sea-faring past, her ailing Gramma Tala (Rachel House) explains that she has been chosen by the ocean to control its waves.

Plucky Moana calls on this watery power when her island’s resources deteriorate because the heart of Goddess Te Feti was stolen. Accompanied by Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), a goofy, rainbow-colored chicken, she searches for the disgraced demigod Maui (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson).

Using his magic fish hook, swaggering Maui, a tattoo-covered trickster, can shapeshift. But capable Moana prevails and, together, they hit the high seas on a quest, carrying a message of identity and staying true to your convictions.

Created as an adventurous coming-of-age story by Jared Bush (“Zootopia”) and Taika Waititi, along with directors Ron Clemente & John Musker (“Aladdin”), it evokes Polynesia’s folkloric beliefs, containing elements from Fijian, Samoan and Tahitian traditions. Moana means ‘ocean’ in Maori.

Demonstrating culturally sensitive casting: Auli’i Cravalho is Hawaiian, Dwayne Johnson’s mother is of Samoan descent, plus New Zealand actors who are part Maori – Jermaine Clement, Temuera Morrison and Rachel House – while Nicole Scherzinger has Hawaiian/Filipino roots.

Lin-Manuel Miranda worked with composer Mark Mancina (“Tarzan”) and Tokelauan-Tuvaluan Opetaia Tavia Foa’i, lead singer of South Pacific fusion band Te Vaka, crafting Moana’s melodic “Know Who You Are” and “How Far I’ll Go,” along with Maui’s “You’re Welcome.” Miranda sings “We Know the Way.”

The animation is amazing, filled with phosphorescent vegetation and shimmering blue water, and this is the first Disney princess movie without a love interest.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Moana” sets sail with an enlightened, empowering 8, introducing a new Disney heroine.

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“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (Warner Bros.)

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When Harry Potter studied at Hogwarts, one of his textbooks was “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” by Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). So Newt’s story is an imaginative prequel.

Newt, a British Magizoologist, travels to New York City in 1926, arriving on Ellis Island with a bottomless satchel of supernatural creatures, several of which escape, thrusting nerdy Newt into the company of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a gullible, good-natured No-Maj (American for Muggles).

They’re spotted by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an astute ex-Auror who’s eager to regain her Investigator post. Members of the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) are strictly segregated and secretive, hidden within a skyscraper (the Woolworth Bldg.).

Its immense Magical Exposure Threat Level Barometer is color-coded at Orange for “severe unexplained activity” because sinister, manipulative Dark Wizard Gellert Grindlewald is on the loose. Pressure is heightened by fanatical witch hunters, Second Salemers, led by bigoted Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton).

One of her troubled acolytes, Credence (Ezra Miller), tips off Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who becomes suspicious, forcing Newt and Tina to flee with Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol).

Their chaotic travels take them through the Lower East Side, Central Park and a stylized Jazz Age speakeasy run by Goblin Gnarlak (Ron Perlman), to a confrontation in Manhattan’s old City Hall subway station.

Based on her own mythology, screenwriter J.K. Rowling, working with longtime “Harry Potter” director David Yates and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot, touches on timely xenophobia (paranoia leading to prejudice and intolerance), while focusing on conservationist Newt’s magical CGI menagerie.

There’s naughty, duck-billed Niffler, who loves shiny, sparkly objects; sprig-like Pickett, the devoted Bowtruckle; the hulking, rhino-like Erumpent; the explosive Obscurus; and Arizona’s majestic Thunderbird – among others.

But Redmayne’s mumblings are often incoherent and it’s overly long – with four episodes to come.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is an engaging, enchanted 8, a fun-filled return to the wizarding world.

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“The Edge of Seventeen”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Edge of Seventeen” (STX Entertainment)

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Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig makes an impressive feature debut with this girl-centered, coming-of-age comedy, evoking nostalgic recollections of “Clueless” “Heathers,” “”Juno,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “10 Things I Hate About You” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

When 17 year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers that her best – and only friend – Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) has hooked up with her handsome, popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), she feels betrayed and hopelessly alone – sure that her life has fallen apart.

A flashback reveals that, while Nadine has always had problems with Darian and her harried, self-involved mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), after her father (Eric Keenleyside) died, things went from bad to worse.

“Everyone in the world is as miserable and empty as I am,” widowed Mona asserts. “They’re just better at pretending.”

Openly hostile, frumpy and socially awkward Nadine idolizes ‘bad boy’ Nick (Alexander Calvert), who works at the local Petland, and is – in turn – shyly, amusingly adored by nerdy Edwin (Hayden Szeto). But this is film is about her, not them.

An outcast and misfit among her classmates, Nadine’s only confidante is her snarky History teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), whose lunch break she continually interrupts with brash, dramatic outbursts`.

What makes it work is that Kelly Fremon Craig has her finger on the pulse of teenage angst, perceptively guiding Hailee Steinfeld’s (“True Grit”) compelling, multi-layered performance with a firm hand. And it’s not surprising that James L. Brooks (“As Good As It Gets”) served as her lead producer.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Edge of Seventeen” is a savvy, wryly sardonic 7 – depicting the fragility of adolescent angst without being self-conscious.

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“Moonlight”

Susan Granger’s review of “Moonlight” (A24)

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Writer/director Barry Jenkins has created an achingly affecting, incandescent coming-of-age story, told in three chapters, covering 16 years – with three different actors playing the leading African-American character.

Growing up in a decrepit, inner-city housing project in Miami, scrawny, fatherless 10 year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) has been dubbed “Little” by playmates, who suspect his tendency toward homosexuality long before he knows what the term “faggot” means.

Hiding from schoolyard tormentors, silent, wide-eyed Chiron is discovered by a kindly, Cuban-born crack dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who offers him a meal and a place to stay for the night at the apartment he shares with his girl-friend, Teresa (singer Janelle Monae).

When Juan drives Chiron home the next morning, he realizes that his mother, Paula (Naomi Harris), is a drug addict. “My momma does drugs?” Chiron asks, trying to comprehend. “And you sell drugs?”

Aided by empathetic Teresa, compassionate Juan gradually becomes vulnerable Chiron’s father-surrogate, building trust by gently teaching the emotionally guarded boy how to swim.

By the time he’s 16, Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) awkward loneliness has become pervasive. One evening, his only friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), initiates a brief sexual encounter on a beach. But the persistent bullying continues, made even painful when Kevin’s forced to participate.

Skip ahead a decade to Atlanta. Troubled Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) surfaces again, beefed up with gold ‘fronts’ on his teeth, but still grappling with his angst-riddled concept of masculinity.

So when Kevin (Andre Holland), now working as a short-order cook, calls, Chiron drives back to Miami, curious about the hand life has dealt him.

Perceptively adapting playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s short theater piece, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”) proceeds at a slow, deliberate pace, studding the screen with subtly shimmering visuals, hauntingly photographed by James Laxton.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Moonlight” is an anguished 8, shattering stereotypes of the LGBTQ community.

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“Almost Christmas”

Susan Granger’s review of “Almost Christmas” (Universal Pictures)

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It’s been a tough year for mild-mannered Walter Meyers (Danny Glover). A retired automotive engineer in Birmingham, Alabama, he’s lost his beloved wife Grace.

Which is why – five days before Christmas – he’s so looking forward to his four adult children and their youngsters returning home for the holidays.

There’s open hostility between recently divorced law student/mom Rachel (Gabrielle Union) and her over-achieving older sister, Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), a dentist whose flirtatious husband Lonnie (J.B. Smoove) is an obnoxious, ego-centric ex-basketball pro.

Walter’s older son Christian (Romany Malco) is an ambitious politician, running for Congress, who arrives with his wife Sonya (Nichole Ari Parker) and his campaign manager, Alan (John Michael Higgins), while his much younger brother, Evan (Jessie T. Usher), is a college football player who has become addicted to pain killers after a recent injury.

Trying to fill in for her deceased sister, sassy Aunt May (Mo’Nique), who has been touring the world as a backup singer, prepares an international ‘welcoming’ buffet which turns out to be inedible – unless one’s culinary taste revolves around kimchi.

There are numerous farcical hijinks, plus Rachel’s reuniting with neighbor Malachi (Omar Epps), her high-school sweetheart, and nostalgia surfaces when it’s discovered that Walter is secretly planning to sell the large family home.

Writer/director David E. Talbert (“Baggage Claim”) throws in nostalgic sketches, like Walter’s pathetic attempt to re-create Grace’s famous Yuletide sweet-potato pie, but the result is yet another, episodic, overly contrived, dysfunctional family comedy/drama.

Actually, the best chuckle comes when Walter wearily mutters, “I’m too old for this shit,” a not-so-subtle reference to his memorable “Lethal Weapon” quip.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Almost Christmas” is a familiar, formulaic 5, including the outtakes during the final credits.

05

 

“Shut In”

Susan Granger’s review of “Shut In” (EuropaCorp/Transfilm)

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This wannabe thriller begins in rural Maine as Mary Portman (Naomi Watts) bids farewell to her incorrigible teenage stepson, Stephen (Charlie Heaton), who is being banished to a boarding school.

En route, as Stephen scuffles with his father, a horrific car crash ensues. The father dies and Stephen emerges totally paralyzed and catatonic.

Now-widowed Mary, who works out of her home as a child psychologist, becomes Stephen’s sole caregiver. By nature, she’s a nurturer, so it’s not surprising that she becomes attached to Tom (Jacob Tremblay from “Room”), a deaf youngster who has become violent with his playmates.

“I can help him,” Mary insists. “These things take time.”

But Tom’s social worker thinks he belongs in a more restrictive care facility.

Then, one dark and stormy night, troubled Tom appears on her doorstep, only to disappear again into the deep snow. As the search for Tom continues, tormented Mary begins to hear strange noises in the creaky, old house.

Via Skype, she confides her increasing concern her therapist, Dr. Wilson (Oliver Platt). He suspects she’s suffering from parasomnia because her normal sleep patterns have been disrupted and orders a blood test before prescribing an anti-depressant.

In the meantime, lonely Mary finds a suitor (David Cubitt), the father of another of her patients.

Amateurishly scripted by Christina Hodson, the illogical story not only strains credibility, it’s also laughable. And it doesn’t help that British TV director Farren Blackburn (“Doctor Who,” “Daredevil”) maintains a plodding pace. There’s little suspense, only some occasional jump scares.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Shut In” is a tedious 2 – a total waste of time and talent.

02

 

“Trolls”

Susan Granger’s review of “Trolls” (DreamWorks Animation/20th Century-Fox)

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Back in 1959, a Danish woodcutter named Thomas Dam came up with the idea of a Good Luck Troll doll.

As the story goes, he couldn’t afford to buy a doll for his young daughter, so he carved one. It became so popular among her friends that Dam became a toymaker, founding Dam Things, producing Trolls in soft plastic with colorful, cotton-candy hair.

In 2003, the Toy Industry Assoc. elevated the squat, fuzzy Troll to its Century of Toys list, and now DreamWorks Animation has created a musical comedy about the search for happiness – and just how far some will go to get it.

Trolls are “the happiest creatures the world had ever known.” In their woodland Trolltopia, they love to sing, dance and hug, blissfully riffing into Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello,” Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” “Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.”

Problem is: as a worrywart Troll named Branch (Justin Timberlake) points out, although the Trolls’ mortal enemies, the giant Bergen ogres, haven’t been seen for 20 years, they may return any day now.

Monstrous Bergens relish gobbling Trolls and, sure enough, disgraced Chef Bergen (Christine Baranski) kidnaps several – including Biggie (James Corden) and DJ Suki (Gwen Stefani) – planning to serve them for dinner on Trollstice, a feast day.

So perpetually optimistic, pink Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch launch a rescue mission.

Meanwhile, Chef’s long-suffering scullery maid, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), is secretly in love with Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). So ever-helpful Trolls give her a bedazzling make-over, turning her into Lady GlitterSparkles.

Despite its exuberant platitudes, derivative predictability and cupcake poop, scripted by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, directors Walt Dohrn (“Spongebob Squarepants”) and Mike Mitchell (“Shrek Forever After”) keep the action peppy and blindingly colorful – albeit instantly forgettable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Trolls” is a sugary, syrupy 6 – with a rockin’ soundtrack.

06

 

“Arrival”

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

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Denis Villenueve’s “Arrival” is an exciting, provocative, intellectually stimulating sci-fi thriller!

Combining the wonderment of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” while jettisoning the perception of linear time, it’s about Earth’s first contact with an alien civilization.

When 12 mysterious spacecraft touch down around the globe, renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summoned by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to try to decipher their intergalactic intentions.

Still mourning the death of her young daughter, Louise realizes that this is a mind-bending adventure. En route to the nearest landing site in Montana, she’s joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an expert in binary code.

While they evaluate the unnervingly dark, 1,500-ft. high, ovoid spaceship, panic ensues as foreign governments attempt their own extraterrestrial ‘first contact.’ According to CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), China and Russia are particularly aggrieved.

Aboard the vessel, they must adjusting to minimal gravity in a steep shaft and ascend to a chamber where Louise attempts to communicate with its otherworldly inhabitants, immense squid-like creatures, called heptapods, hovering behind a transparent, protective barrier.

Dubbed Abbott & Costello by Louise and Ian, two aliens materialize out of a dense mist. Louise notices that the clicking, whale-like sounds they emit don’t correlate with the ideograms that their splayed claws squirt forth – squishy, enigmatic calligraphy, resembling Rorschach ink blobs.

Decrypting these symbols results in a stunning concept which Louise eventually comprehends. Alluding to Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it’s the idea that your language determines how you perceive the world.

Eric Heisserer has adroitly adapted Ted Chiang’s cerebral novella “Story of Your Life,” directed with subtle resonance and admirable restraint by Denis Villenueve (“Sicario,” “Incendies”) – with flashbacks evoking poetic concepts of life and death, love and loss.

Luminous Amy Adams’ vulnerable melancholy is enhanced by Bradford Young’s gray, overcast cinematography, Patrice Vermette’s fantastic production design, and Johann Johannsson’s eerie score.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Arrival” is a thrilling 10, an enlightening, inspiring allegory for our times. One of the year’s best!

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“Dr. Strange”

Susan Granger’s review of “Dr. Strange” (Disney)

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe expands with a dazzling, kaleidoscopic prelude set in a Nepalese monastery, where villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) teleports into a guarded library, rips a page from an ancient tome and departs through a weird portal leading into downtown London.

Meanwhile, celebrated Manhattan neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), proves he’s as narcissistic as he is gifted, his unbridled arrogance causing a horrific automobile accident that leaves his trembling hands unable to use a scalpel.

Desperate to regain his self-esteem, Dr. Strange turns to the mystic arts, seeking a spiritual miracle by making a pilgrimage to a place called Kamar-Taj in the mountains of Kathmandu, presided over by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a bald, ageless, certainly androgynous Celtic woman.

“You wonder what I see in your future?” she asks. “Possibility.”

Sure enough, aided by her assistants Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), sardonic Strange turns out to be a quick learner, discovering how to connect with his astral body in preparation to battle evil Kaecilius and his elusive god Dormammu, who dwells in the Dark Dimension.

Created by Stan Lee and Dali-esque artist Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange first appeared in 1963 as part of the Human Torch series in “Strange Tales” Comics.

Perceptively scripted with sly quips by director Scott Derrickson (“Sinister,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) and several co-writers, Strange’s origin story is a hallucinogenic trip, the fantasy/action amplified by a psychedelic CGI time-loop and spatial displacement in parallel universes.

Unfortunately, Dr. Strange’s exasperated love interest, fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), has little to do but dart around, trying to be helpful, while humor unexpectedly emanates from the mischievous Cloak of Levitation.

As with all Marvel movies, stick around for the enticing ‘after-credits’ scene.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dr. Strange” is a spectacularly surreal 8, an awesome introduction to a fascinating Marvel character appearing as the ‘Sorcerer Supreme’ in the upcoming “Thor Ragnarok” (2017) and “The Avengers Infinity War” (2018).

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