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“All the Money in the World”

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

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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.

07

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

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

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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.

07

“Downsizing”

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

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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!”

05

“The Greatest Showman”

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

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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.

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“The Leisure Seeker”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Leisure Seeker” (Sony Pictures Classics)

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Movies for and about seniors are few and far between, particularly when Helen Mirren teams up with Donald Sutherland for a nostalgic journey.

John Spencer (Sutherland) is a retired English professor, devoted to the works of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Herman Melville. Although he can quote verbatim from literary works, he’s becoming increasingly debilitated from Alzheimer’s/dementia, which renders him incapable of remembering even the most mundane details – like what day it is and his wife’s name.

So it’s Ella Spencer (Mirren), the caretaker, who suggests they climb into their 1975 Winnebago Indian RV, nicknamed the Leisure Seeker, for one last road trip from their home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to Key West, Florida.  It may be a ridiculous idea, she concedes, but what do they have to lose?

Enjoying the simple pleasures each day brings, they stop at familiar campgrounds along the way. At night, they look at photographs of family and friends that Ella projects onto a makeshift screen. That leads to reminiscing about particular incidents during their decades-long marriage, while accusing each other of alleged infidelities.

Inevitably, their narrative delves into death and dying, particularly the concept of “choosing” how one dies.

None of this sits well with their adult children (Christian McKay, Janel Moloney) who had no idea their parents were leaving. They’re understandably worried because Ella is also gravely ill, masking her pain with medicine and whiskey.

Donald Sutherland delivers a finely textured portrait of a dignified scholar in decline, while Helen Mirren imbues Ella with genuine warmth, despite her contrived and inconsistent Southern accent.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo, based on Michael Zadoorian’s novel, Italian director Paolo Virzi (“Human Capital”) never settles on a consistent tone, perhaps because it’s his first English-language film.

So it never measures up to Jane Fonda/Robert Redford’s “Our Souls at Night” (2017) or Blythe Danner/Sam Elliott’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams” (2016).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Leisure Seeker” is a gentle, bittersweet 6 – notable for its performances.

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“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Susan Granger’s review of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (Sony Pictures Classics)

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Annette Bening delivers a powerhouse performance as sultry Gloria Grahame. Yet to fully appreciate it, you should know a bit about who this enigmatic actress was.

Back in 1940s and ‘50s film noir, Grahame starred in “Crossfire,” “Sudden Fear,” “The Big Heat,” “In a Lonely Place” and “The Bad and the Beautiful,” for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Fans also remember her from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Oklahoma!”

Obsessed with her appearance, Grahame underwent extensive plastic surgery, habitually fixing nonexistent flaws. Her volatile temperament alienated even the most admiring directors, and she courted scandalous gossip with four disastrous marriages – one to the son of an ex-husband.

The day after divorcing actor Stanley Clements, she married director Nicholas Ray. That ended disastrously after Ray found Gloria in bed with Tony, his 13 year-old son by a previous marriage. She then married and divorced producer Cy Howard before marrying her stepson, 23 year-old Tony Ray.

In 1979, Gloria was on-stage in England when she met Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a British actor who was 28 years younger. Peter became besotted with her, and she spent the last days of her life at his family’s home in Liverpool. Gloria Grahame died from recurring breast cancer in 1981 at age 57.

This is their love story. Just theirs – with only occasional flashbacks. Too bad there weren’t more.

Inspired by Turner’s memoir, adapted by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Paul McGuigan, it was propelled into production by James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, who has known Turner for more than 40 years.

Not only is Annette Bening riveting but Jamie Bell gets his first meaty role since “Billy Elliot.” Their “Saturday Night Fever” disco seduction sequence is terrific. And they’re given stalwart support from Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave.

If you’re curious to know more about the real Gloria Grahame, I highly recommend Vincent Curcio’s 1989 biography “Suicide Blonde.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a subtly poignant 7, another Tinseltown tragedy.

07

 

“Hostiles”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hostiles” (Entertainment Studios)

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Paying homage to classic Westerns like John Ford’s “The Searchers,” writer/director Scott Cooper has created a different kind of frontier saga, one which examines the complexity of the Native American conflict and connects with relevant, contemporary themes, including reconciliation, inclusion and equality.

“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer,” states the preface by D.H. Lawrence.

Set in 1892, it begins with a vicious Comanche raid on isolated homesteaders and U.S. soldiers torturing an Apache family – setting the scene for this revisionist examination of the American West.

Under threat of court martial, embittered Army Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) must escort dying Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from imprisonment at Fort Berringer in New Mexico Territory to their tribal lands in Montana.

Riding northward through the rugged landscape, Blocker and his small troop of soldiers discover grief-wracked Mrs. Quaid (Rosamond Pike), the sole survivor of that Comanche raid; she is determined to dig her children’s graves with her own bare hands.

Given no choice, Blocker takes the widow along with them. When they reach Ford Collins, Colorado, he’s further burdened by transporting psychopathic Sgt. Philip Wills (Ben Foster) for trial.

When the travelers are brutally attached by Comanche raiders, Yellow Hawk begs to be released so he can help them fight, observing, “We must unite…”  Eventually, when faced by a stubborn rancher who refuses to allow proper Cheyenne burials, they do.

Working from an episodic script by the late screenwriter Donald Steward, Scott Cooper enlisted Chief Philip Whiteman, the pre-eminent Northern Cheyenne Chief of Montana, to ensure authenticity. Along with his cast and crew, he was determined to get every detail of their customs and mores correct.

“The majority of Americans are shocked at what our country has become,” notes Bale. “This tax bill, etc. is not what American was built on. I adore this country; it’s my adopted home. Most Americans are shocked to see the hatred and division that has occurred recently, particularly towards refugees. It’s a genuine tragedy. But we have been here before; we can learn from that.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hostiles” is a savage, sorrowful 6, perhaps igniting a conversation about how two opposing forces can come together and move forward in peace and harmony, for the betterment of humanity.

06

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Susan Granger’s review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Disney)

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Writer/director Rian Johnson’s expansion of George Lucas’ galactic adventure franchise is everything you want it to be – and more – particularly viewed on the huge IMAX screen at Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium.

Beginning where J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” left off with the hallmark scrolling-text “crawl,“ the totalitarian First Order under Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is still trying to obliterate Resistance forces, led by wry General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and steely Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern).

Desperate for help, courageous Rey (Daisy Ridley), Jakku’s scavenger-turned-warrior, is dispatched on the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca to try to convince reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) not only to come back but also to train her as a Jedi.

Despite detecting Daisy’s extraordinary aptitude, melancholy Luke is adamant about not leaving Ahch-To, his craggy island sanctuary, particularly when he senses dangerous mind-melding similarities between Rey and his last pupil, despicable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has descended to the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, hotshot Rebel rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) takes off in an X-wing to recklessly taunt, then engage contemptuous General Hux’s (Domhnall Gleason) massive ship.

In a subplot, Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance warrior Finn (John Boyega), plucky newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and the shifty mercenary DJ (Benicio Del Toro) embark on an espionage mission to Canto Bight, a hedonistic casino city, riffing on a previous “Star Wars” cantina with its bizarre clientele.

The requisite lightsaber duels arrive on schedule, along with Yoda. British visual-effects artist Neal Scanlan has created a myriad of engaging creatures, like the ice cave’s Crystal Critters, Ahch-To’s Caretakers and the tiny, saucer-eyed Porgs that bond with Chewbacca. Plus the Droids.

This latest installment is cheeky and fun, while continuing the familial thread, epitomized by idealism, self-sacrifice and Eastern mysticism.

FYI: Principal photography was completed before Carrie Fisher’s poignant death at age 60 on December 27, 2016; her daughter Billie Lourd plays Lieutenant Kaydel Connix.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a spectacular 10. What a great holiday gift for moviegoers! May the Force Be With You….

 

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“Last Flag Flying”

Susan Granger’s review of “Last Flag Flying” (Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)

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In 2003, when his only son, a Marine, is killed in the Iraq War, former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) tracks down his two Marine Corps buddies from the Vietnam War to help him bury his boy.

Traveling from his home in New Hampshire, Larry visits the bar run by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a rowdy alcoholic who doesn’t recognize him at first. After all, they haven’t seen each other for 30 years.

Then they find now-Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who is reluctant to leave his wife and congregation to join this unexpected road trip. While obnoxious Sal and prickly Richard squabble, Larry is trying to cope with his overwhelming grief.

Eventually, they wind up in a hangar at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, confronted by an unctuous Colonel (Yul Vazquez) and five metallic coffins covered by American flags.

When Larry learns exactly how his son died in Baghdad, he decides to refuse burial at Arlington National Cemetery, preferring, instead, to inter him next to his mother in the local Portsmouth graveyard.

So the trio embarks on a bittersweet ride up the East Coast, accompanied by a young Marine escort, one of Larry’s son’s buddies (J. Quinton Johnson). Along the way, they reminisce, reconcile their differences and come to terms with the long-term effects of the conflict that continues to contour their lives.

Adapted by director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) and Darryl Ponicsan from Poniscan’s 2005 novel, it’s a memory drama about male bonding and communal guilt over America’s choice to wage war in foreign countries where our occupying forces are not welcome.

There are indelible connections between this Linklater film and Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” (1973), starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young, which was also based on a novel by Darryl Poniscan.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Last Flag Flying” is a somber, sorrowful 6. Instead of sentimentality, it’s thought-provoking, a very different kind of war film.

06

“The Ballad of Lefty Brown”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” (A24)

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If you yearn for the kind of Western they don’t often make anymore, view this rambling frontier tale, set in Montana in 1889.

It begins on a rain-soaked night as a dying man staggers out of a saloon and collapses on the muddy road. Sheriff Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda) and his trusty, if inept, sidekick Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) quickly corner and catch the culprit, stringing him up on the nearest tree the next morning.

Johnson’s headed for Washington, D.C. as Senator from the newly ratified 41st state. But before he goes, he’s determined to catch rustlers who just stole three of his horses off the back range.

As they ride across the desolate plains, Johnson and Brown are bushwacked, leaving Johnson dead and limping Lefty being blamed by his longtime partner’s widow, Laura (Kathy Baker). She’s fearful that she’ll lose their ranch to some distant male relative because her husband neglected to leave it to her in a Will.

Shortly after Lefty takes off by himself to track down Frank (Joe Anderson), the cold-blooded killer, he joined by teenage Jeremiah (Diego Josef), a gullible, wannabe gunslinger who has read too many dime novels, many incorporating Johnson and Lefty’s fictionalized adventures, and then by hard-drinking U.S. Marshall Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan).

Meanwhile, there’s skullduggery involving scheming Governor Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel), who eagerly envisions the coming of the railroad.

Written and directed by Jared Moshe (“Dead Man’s Burden”), it’s slowly, deliberately paced and splendidly photographed in 35 mm by David McFarland.

Summoning memories of loyal characters played by Walter Brennan and Gabby Hayes, Bill Pullman is about as grizzled as a contentious old coot can be, but he manages to propel the revenge saga to a redemptive conclusion.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” is a satisfying 6, an old-fashioned oater.

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