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“Lady Bird”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lady Bird” (A24)

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Actress/screenwriter Greta Gerwig makes an auspicious directorial debut with this perceptive coming-of-age dramedy, chronicling the tempestuous bond between a teenager and her mother.

Set in 2002-3 in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, California, it begins with novelist Joan Didion’s acerbic observation: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is coping with her senior year at a Catholic high school and unrest at home, since her mild-mannered father, Larry (Tracy Letts), lost his job and her strong-willed mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), works two shifts as a psychiatric nurse to keep the lower middle-class family afloat, albeit on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks.

“I want you to be the best version of yourself,” her hypercritical, demeaning mother says. “What if this is the best version?” mildly rebellious Lady Bird counters.

Understandably eager to get away from home, just-turned-18 year-old Lady Bird secretly applies to East Coast colleges, “where the culture is,” even though her parents can barely afford in-state tuition at nearby UC Davis.

Not surprisingly, Lady Bird’s adolescent love life is awkwardly complicated, first by hunky thespian Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges), who is grappling with his own problems, then she loses her virginity to musician Kyle Scheible (Timothee Chalamet).

Besieged by emotional contradictions and confusion, Lady Bird recklessly jilts her sensitive BFF Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein) for a richer, more popular classmate, Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush).

Filmmaker Gerwig pays attention to artfully delineated supporting characters, like the insightful counseling by Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) and the clueless ex-football coach-turned-drama director diagraming the staging of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” with X’s and O’s on a chalkboard.

And – this being Award season – look for Saoirse Ronan as a Best Actress nominee and Laurie Metcalf as a Best Supporting Actress contender.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lady Bird” is an effectively empathetic 8, filled with sassy, bittersweet anguish.

08

“The Man Who Invented Christmas”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (Bleecker Street)

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Have you ever wondered how Charles Dickens created “A Christmas Carol”?

Adapting Les Standiford’s 2008 biography, screenwriter Susan Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri introduce self-absorbed Dickens (Dan Stevens) in 1842, as he relishes his triumphal speaking tour of the United States, where “Oliver Twist” is a tremendous success.

A year and three publishing ‘flops’ later, 31 year-old Dickens is back in Victorian-era London, wrestling with writer’s block and insistent bill collectors. When he ‘pitches’ a Christmas book to his publishers, they scoff at the idea, informing him that it’s a ‘minor holiday,’ not worth the effort and expense.

After conferring with his best friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) at the famed Garrick Club, Dickens decides to publish the book himself – if only he can get the inspiration to finish it.

Then, suddenly, the vivid apparition of slyly crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) appears, along with Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

“We know that Dickens did carry on conversations with his characters, so that’s based on the true story, and we’ve invented his interior thoughts,” explains Susan Coyne.

While all this is happening in Dickens’ feverish imagination, he’s forced to confront several real-life dilemmas, like his wife’s pregnancy, adding to the four young children they already have. Plus, his genial, ne’er-do-well father, John (Jonathan Pryce) is once again leaning on him for loans.

The unexpected arrival of his estranged father ignites unwelcome recollections of Charles’ impoverished childhood, when he worked in a boot-blacking factory where he was mercilessly bullied. And it soon becomes obvious that Dickens must come to terms with his inner demons before he can finish his holiday tale.

Fact and fantasy intertwine as the familiar fable unfolds. “A Christmas Carol” has never been out-of-print and is widely acknowledged as a major influence on Yuletide traditions, including family, friendship and charity.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a whimsical 6, an endearing trifle.

06

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Susan Granger’s review of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (Fox Searchlight)

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Writer/director Martin McDonaugh’s darkly comic revenge drama revolves around grieving Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered several months ago.

Since the Ebbing Police Department has been unable to find the killer, Mildred rents three abandoned billboards on a back road to advertise their ineptitude and complacency, focusing on Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who has been privately agonizing about not having solved the crime and is dying of pancreatic cancer.

Launching this outrageously merciless, one-woman crusade, Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Olive Kitteridge”) delivers a formidable, ferociously uncompromising performance that firmly places her on-track for another Academy Award. She’s adroitly supported by Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, as his moronic, rage-filled deputy.

Plus there’s Caleb Landry Jones as the local ad-sales agent, Peter Dinklage as the kindly car salesman who courts Mildred, Lucas Hedges as her long-suffering teenage son and John Hawkes as her abusive ex-husband.

Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonaugh (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Pillowman,” “In Bruges”) specializes in agonizing emotional pain, juggling comedy and tragedy, touching on racism and misogyny, peppered with irrational, uncontrolled violence and coarse, cruel pranks.

After winning the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, McDonaugh noted the fortunate timing: “It’s great to be putting out a film with such a strong woman lead character. Even just two months before anyone had seen it, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be taken…We worried that the darkness in the story might not allow people to laugh.”

Kudos also to British cinematographer Ben Davis, production designer Inbal Weinberg and composer Carter Burwell’s distinctive musical score.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is an edgy, unpredictable 8, a morbidly funny film.

08

“Wonder”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wonder” (Lionsgate)

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Are Hollywood’s title-titans trying to confuse us? “Wonder Woman” was the hit of the summer. Last week, I highly recommended Todd Haynes’ imaginative “Wonderstruck.” Now, I’m touting the family-oriented drama “Wonder”…and soon we’ll get Woody Allen’s new “Wonder Wheel.”

“Wonder” begins as August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) earnestly explains, “I’m not an ordinary 10 year-old kid.” He was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare genetic mutation that causes severe facial deformities.

After enduring 27 surgeries, Auggie is acutely aware of his physical appearance. Hiding beneath a space helmet and homeschooled by his mother (Julia Roberts) at their Brooklyn brownstone, he’s petrified to enter fifth grade at Beecher Prep School. Yet, supported by his mom, dad (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izebela Vidovic), Auggie bravely faces his judgmental middle-school peers.

Predictably, a trust-fund brat, Julian (Bryce Gheisar), cruelly taunts him, saying, “I’ve never seen anything that ugly in my whole life.”  And although genial Jack Will (Noah Jupe) befriends him in science class, he betrays Auggie soon afterwards.

But then openhearted Summer (Millie Davis) chooses to sit with Augie at lunch when others won’t, “because I want some nice friends for a change.”

Based on the 2012 bestseller by R.J. Palacio, it’s astutely adapted by Steven Conrad, Jack Thorne and director Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), relating the emotionally eloquent story from multiple perspectives, including how attention-deprived Via is ditched by her BFF Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) for a new crop of ‘cool’ friends.

Not since Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” (1985) has there been such a thoughtful and believable depiction of what are now called “facial differences.” And one only wishes that every teacher and principal were as supportive and understanding as Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs) and Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin).

Boosted by solid supporting performances, Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) once again proves he’s the most gifted child actor in years.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wonder” is a compassionate, compelling 8, concluding with the upbeat observation: “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.”

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“Justice League”

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

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When William Shakespeare wrote, “It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing,” he could have been summarizing “Justice League.” Or, let’s put it this way: How is it that when you’re given everything, you come away with nothing?”

Picking up where last year’s “Batman vs. Superman” left off, the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) has left everyone morose, including Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). Of course, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is bereft and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) is facing foreclosure on the family house and farm.

So it’s the perfect time for a villainous alien to re-appear: Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), wielding a bodacious battle-axe. He’s searching for three Mother-boxes that, when united, will decimate Earth.

When he was here before, a union of Amazons, Atlanteans, Greek Gods, etc. forced him into retreat…but now he’s back, along with his satanic demons (creepy winged thingies) that feed on fear.

Reluctantly led by Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the DC Comic Universe converges. From Iceland, there’s the tattooed malcontent, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa). Nerdy, nervous Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) can run really, really fast, and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is a science experiment – half-man/half-machine – whose powers are just emerging, much to his own surprise.

And wouldn’t you know it? Without explanation, Superman comes back to life, although he momentarily suffers some psychological issues, like not realizing who he is. Without wasting much time, he’s brought up-to-speed, declaring, “I’m back now, and I’m gonna make things right.”

Scripted by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon and directed by Zach Snyder, it’s totally lacking in humor and fun, unless you’re amused by the repetition of an absurd “Pet Sematary” joke.  Basically, it’s a 121-minute bore – except when Gal Gadot and Amy Adams are on the screen.

And, yes, there’s a mid-credit scene at the conclusion.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Justice League” is a nonsensical 4 – three points for Gal Gadot and one for trying.

04

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (Sony Pictures Classics

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The takeaway thought from this less-than-memorable biopic is that one highly-principled person can make a big difference…and many Americans are hoping that another steps forth soon.

The whistleblower is Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), who for many years was a trusted confidante and second-in-line to the F.B.I.’s Director J. Edgar Hoover.

As it begins, Felt is summoned by Richard Nixon’s aides and asked how the President can fire Hoover. Tersely wording his reply, Felt tells them that every tidbit of gossip and information that comes to the Bureau – like who’s seen with a woman who is not his wife  or another man – is duly recorded and kept in Hoover’s personal files, concluding: “All your secrets are safe with us.”

Oozing with righteous indignation, Felt claims the F.B.I. is “the most respected institution in the world,” operating independently without any interference from anyone, including the White House and Department of Justice.

When Hoover suddenly dies, instead of promoting Felt, Nixon appoints an outsider with no law-enforcement experience, his crony L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), much to the dismay of Felt and his frustrated wife, Audrey (Diane Lane).

When the 1972 Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee occurs, Gray minimizes its importance, giving Felt and his team only 48 hours before closing the case. Thankfully, Felt continues to investigate, communicating his suspicions to Time magazine’s Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward (Julian Morris), becoming the elusive tipster known as Deep Throat.

Based on books by Felt and John D. O’Connor, it’s superficially scripted by writer/director Peter Landesman (“Concussion”), who completely fails to capture the compelling drama of “All the President’s Men” (1977).  And the counterculture Weather Underground subplot, involving Felt’s daughter goes nowhere.

Liam Neeson’s stoic performance is staunchly supported by John Lucas, Michael C. Hall, Tony Goldwyn, Brian d’Arcy James, Eddie Marsan, Tom Sizemore, Ike Barinholtz and Kate Walsh.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a fizzled 5, political deception resigned to failure.

05

“Daddy’s Home 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Daddy’s Home 2” (Paramount Pictures)

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Picking up on where the 2015 comedy left off, the dueling daddies – macho Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg), ex-husband of Sara (Linda Cardellini), and her new husband, manchild Brad Whitaker (Will Ferrell) – have become close friends, cordially sharing custody of Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez).

Dusty is now married to Karen (model Alessandra Ambrosio), becoming stepfather to Adrianna (Didi Costine), Karen’s daughter with Roger (John Cena). Got that straight?

Instead to shuttling the kids back and forth, they’ve decided to celebrate Christmas together. Which sounds wonderful until Dusty’s misogynistic dad, Kurt (Mel Gibson), decides to visit and Brad’s dad, Don (John Lithgow), shows up alone, explaining that Brad’s mother is tending a sick relative.

Seeds of discontent are sown as soon as homophobic Kurt spies sensitive Brad kissing his effete dad “hello” at the airport. By the time they do their third liplock, the gag has gone beyond stale.

Deciding to take the whole family out of town for the holidays, Kurt rents an Airbnb cabin in the mountains so they can enjoy the snow and play with loaded guns. What could go wrong?

Sloppily scripted by John Morris (“We’re the Millers”) and director Sean Anders (“Horrible Bosses 2”), the episodic, dysfunctional family plot and subsequent chaos bears an uncanny resemblance to “A Bad Mom Christmas” – with a gender reversal. Ho-ho-humbug.

When casting was completed many months ago, it may have seemed like a good idea to make bad-boy Mel Gibson a crass, cynical, sexist, former astronaut but, since Hollywood’s now beseiged by sexual harassment and assault scandals, he comes across as simply repugnant.

Back in 2006, Gibson made headlines with an anti-Semitic rant during a second DUI arrest and, in 2011, pleaded no contest to battery against a girlfriend. So it’s not amusing when Kurt regales his grandchildren: “Hey, kids, I’ve got one for you…Two dead hookers wash up on the shore…”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Daddy’s Home 2” is a mean-spirited, toxic 2. It’s dismal.

02

“LBJ”

Susan Granger’s review of “LBJ” (Electric Entertainment)

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There’s no question that Lyndon Baines Johnson had his eye on the White House during his tenure as Senate Majority Leader. But being a good poker player and canny pragmatist, he knew when to ‘hold ‘em’ and when to ‘fold ‘em,’ which is why he agreed to run as John F. Kennedy’s Vice-President after failing to get the 1960 Democratic nomination for himself.

“Lyndon, you have more experience and more talent and more wisdom,” Kennedy admits. “Unfortunately, this is politics and none of that matters.”

This historical biopic begins in Texas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) is assassinated and Johnson (Woody Harrelson), with his supportive wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at his side, is suddenly thrust into the Oval Office, much to the disgust of his longtime adversary Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David).

The racist Southern caucus, led by Georgia’s venomous Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), assumes that LBJ will torpedo Kennedy’s contentious Civil Rights Act, only to discover that, as the new President, LBJ is determined to solidify Kennedy’s legacy by championing the causes on which he won the election.

As Johnson cynically puts it: while charismatic Kennedy was the “show horse,” he’s the “work horse.” Under LBJ’s leadership, the progressive Medicare, Medicad and Head Start programs were implemented.

Scripted by first-time screenwriter Joey Hartstone and directed by Rob Reiner, it’s not only underdeveloped, even contrived at times, but also weighed down by a jumbled, non-linear time frame that turns out to be a major distraction. And Johnson’s fatal escalation of the United States’ involvement the Vietnam War is barely mentioned.

Wearing a toupee, prosthetics, horn-rimmed glasses and platform shoes, Woody Harrelson delivers a powerhouse performance, but he never quite captures LBJ’s ability to intimidate his adversaries.

The 36th President has already been portrayed by Liev Schreiber (“The Butler”), Tom Wilkinson (“Selma”) John Carroll Lynch (“Jackie”) and Bryan Cranston (“All the Way”). And since historian Robert Caro is still working on his multi-volume biography, more actors will inevitably play LBJ in the future.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “LBJ” is a straightforward 6, a solid political drama.

06

“Novitiate”

Susan Granger’s review of “Novitiate” (Sony Pictures Classics)

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Spearheaded by Pope John XXIII in 1962, the Second Vatican Council brought liberalizing changes to the Roman Catholic Church, causing a radical theological shift.

Opening with shy, 17 year-old Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) noting, “People never understand why I want to give it all away to God,” this is the story of a young woman’s religious fervor and subsequent questioning of her faith and vocation.

Raised by a single mother (Julianne Nicholson) in a non-religious household, Cathleen is given a scholarship to a nearby parochial school, where she learns about Catholicism. One day, while sitting in the quiet chapel, she feels the presence of God.

Ignoring her mother’s “There’s more to life than God and church and praying,” she enters a cloistered convent, Sisters of the Blessed Rose, as a postulant. The stern Mother Superior (Melissa Leo) introduces herself as “God’s representative on Earth.”

Firmly declaring that “God is not a fantasy, nor a daydream, and not your invisible friend,” she alone will decide over the coming months whether the young women are worthy of continuing their Holy commitment.

Admitting she was dazzled by Audrey Hepburn in “A Nun’s Story,” it’s obvious that one (Maddie Hasson) won’t last long. But pious Cathleen seems determined to survive the rigorous self-restraint and, ultimately, become a bride of Christ, taking final vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

Writer/director Maggie Betts pulls back the curtain on the secrecy of convent life, revealing the mental and physical hardships the women endure, paying particular attention to the melodramatic sadism of Mother Superior, who initially refuses to abandon the draconian discipline (like self-flagellation) she’s observed for 40 years.

The anguish of Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) is riveting, and Melissa Leo delivers a powerhouse performance. (Leo used the white jersey shawl she had been given after she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Fighter” to drape, backwards and frontwards, as her character’s wimple.)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Novitiate” is a solemn, soulful 6, concluding with the challenging revelation that 90,000 nuns have since left convents, renouncing their vows.

06

“Goodbye Christopher Robin”

Susan Granger’s review of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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This is the intriguing ‘backstory’ about the creation of one of literature’s most beloved children’s tales.

Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) was best known as a successful British playwright, churning out witty West End comedies. But, in 1919, after he returned from fighting on the Western Front during W.W.I, he was shell-shocked and depressed, suffering from what we now know as PTSD.

Impatient with her husband’s inability to resume writing, Milne’s self-centered, socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), reluctantly agrees to move to Sussex with him and their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston).

Morose Milne rarely spends time with the cherubic boy until Daphne takes off for London and Christopher’s devoted nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) leaves to tend her dying mother.

Suddenly, Milne finds himself alone with Christopher, nicknamed Billy Moon. When they stroll through Ashdown Forest, Billy always brings his beloved bear; at home, he enjoys tea parties with his fanciful collection of other stuffed animals.

Observing this interaction, Milne begins writing whimsical, gently rhyming tales about the bucolic adventures of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger and Piglet in the mythical Hundred Acre Wood, collaborating with fellow veteran/illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The instant – and overwhelming – success of “Winnie-the-Pooh” transforms Christopher into a reluctant superstar, forced to do interviews, participate in photo ops and greet the adoring public.

Growing into manhood, Billy (Alex Lawther) becomes deeply resentful that his childhood was sacrificed for fame and fortune. In “The Enchanted Places, Beyond the World of Pooh” and “The Hollow on the Hill,” he wrote: “It seemed to me almost that my father had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and left me nothing but empty fame.”

Utilizing Ann Thwaite’s 1990 biography of A.A. Milne, along with Christopher Milne’s memoirs, screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughn, working with director Simon Curtis (“Woman in Gold,” “My Week With Marilyn”), have fashioned a rather contrived, somewhat uneven, cautionary tale for parents.

Curtis confesses a fascination with the downside of celebrity, which most people don’t like to acknowledge: “It’s about showing the unwelcome side of fame. What interests me is going behind the curtain of iconic stories to find the truth.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a charming, bittersweet, yet stumbling 7. Who knew?

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