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“Wonderstruck”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wonderstruck” (Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions)

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Beginning with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” – this is the visually captivating story of two curious 12 year-olds – a half-century apart – who run away to New York City to find answers to elusive questions about their past.

In 1927 in Hoboken, New Jersey, lonely Rose (Milllicent Simmonds) lives with her strict father (James Urbaniak). She’s deaf, and her great joy is going to the movies to see her silent-screen idol, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who is now starring on Broadway and whom she thinks is her mother. Her story is evocatively told in stylized black-and-white with no spoken dialogue.

In 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota (in vibrant color), Ben (Oakes Fegley) is mourning the death of his single mother, a librarian named Elaine (Michelle Williams), when he finds an old bookmark from Kincaid Books in Manhattan with the note, “Elaine, I’ll wait for you. Love, Danny.” Just then, he’s struck by lightning, which leaves him deaf but, nevertheless, determined to find the man who may be his father.

As the puzzling plot unfolds, their parallel lives are bound to intersect. But how?

Collaborating with novelist/illustrator/screenwriter Brian Selznick, cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, costumer Sandy Powell and composer Carter Burwell, director Todd Haynes (“Carol”) cleverly cuts between Rose and Ben, each on a mission they are unable to articulate.

Somehow, they find their way to the wildlife dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, where Ben meets mischievous Jamie (Jaden Michael), and Rose finds her older brother Walter (Cary Michael Smith).

The connective threads emanate from the historical tradition called Cabinets of Wonder, where ingenious individuals would display their exotic collections.

Adding to the remarkable authenticity of this childhood fantasy, newcomer Millicent Simmonds is deaf in real life, working with other hearing-impaired actors who communicate through their facial expressions, gestures and physicality.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “Wonderstruck” is an enthralling 8, weaving a cosmic web of whimsical enchantment.

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“Murder on the Orient Express”

Susan Granger’s review of “Murder on the Orient Express” (20th Century Fox)

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Kenneth Branagh’s remake derails almost from the get-go, long before the snow-bound, stranded strangers begin to suspect one another of murder.

Prior to the steam-engine chugging out of the station in the mid-1930s, we’re introduced to Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) with his ridiculous, salt ‘n’ peppery mustache. Author Agatha Christie described Poirot’s facial adornment as having a “tortured splendor,” part of what throws and provokes people. Throughout the film, it’s a major distraction.

Shortly after leaving Istanbul, the corpse of Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an American art dealer, is found in his berth with multiple stab wounds. And the culprit is obviously still aboard.

While an avalanche forces the legendary luxury train to stop on a particularly precarious trestle, Poirot interviews all the passengers with access to Ratchett’s compartment.

There’s Rastchett’s assistant (Josh Gad) and valet (Derek Jacobi), the Doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), the Widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Missionary (Penelope Cruz), the Governess (Daisy Ridley), the Professor (Willem Dafoe), and the Princess (Judi Dench), traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman).

Back in 1974, director Sidney Lumet cast Albert Finney as Poirot, assembling an all-star cast that included Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

In this new version, screenwriter Michael Green has made few changes, the most obvious being a new opening scene in Jerusalem, introducing idiosyncratic Poirot, obsessing over two perfectly balanced soft-boiled eggs, and reconfiguring Dr. Arbuthnot as African-American.

But the connection remains the same: all the passengers had reason to loathe Ratchett, the gangster who kidnapped and killed three year-old Daisy Armstrong – a pivotal plot point that Agatha Christie lifted from the 1932 abduction of Anne and Charles Lindbergh’s baby.

Perhaps the most obvious problem in this remake is Kenneth Branagh’s self-indulgent casting of himself as prissy Poirot and his increasingly annoying overhead shots.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a tiresome, forlorn 5, a forgettable whodunit.

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“A Bad Moms Christmas”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Bad Moms Christmas” (STX Films)

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This shoddy, superfluous sequel begins with newly divorced Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) sitting on her stairs on Christmas Eve, viewing the wreckage that is her home, wondering what went wrong – as a camel wanders by.

“This year I ruined Christmas,” she wails. “I literally feel like the worst mom in the world.”

Flashback a few weeks, as Amy and her friends – chipper Kiki (Kristen Bell) and crass Carla (Kathryn Hahn) – were contemplating the chaos of the upcoming holiday season, feeling overworked and underappreciated.

Their angst is amplified when their respective ‘bad’ moms unexpectedly show up.  Amy’s mom is domineering, demanding Ruth (Christine Baranski). Kiki’s mom is sugary-sweet, yet suffocating Sandy (Cheryl Hines). And Carla’s mom is Isis (Susan Sarandon), a pot-smoking, hedonistic gambler who has dropped by to borrow money.

While the original “Bad Moms” (2016) delivered some disarmingly raunchy guffaws, this superficial exploration of complicated mother/daughter dynamics disappoints. Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, it’s neither insightful nor amusing.

Indeed, it’s embarrassingly vulgar, particularly when blowsy beautician Carla rhapsodizes about waxing the private parts of a male stripper (Justin Hartley) who’s tired of women craving him for his bodacious bod, only to discover that Isis is ready to rock ‘n’ roll with this sexy Santa who happens to be her daughter’s date.

To be fair, there’s a slyly comical scene in which Kiki and Sandy consult a therapist (Wanda Sykes) about establishing ‘boundaries,’ and Ruth’s mind-boggling, Yuletide extravagance, involving live partridges and the Chicago youth choir.

While skilled comediennes like Kathryn Hahn and Christine Baranski make the best of the stressed-out situation, it’s a shame they’re given such sloppy material to work with. There’s no sisterhood, none of the disarming female bonding that characterized their previous comedy.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Bad Moms Christmas” is a frazzled 4, like trashy tinsel.

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“Thor: Ragnarock”

Susan Granger’s review of “Thor: Ragnarok” (Marvel Studios/Disney)

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For comic-book fans, Marvel’s hammer-throwing hero is back – in the BEST Thor movie yet!

Since “Ragnarok” means apocalypse, the story picks up where the last one left off: Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, is trying to save Asgard, his home planet, only to discover that he and his treacherous brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston) have a power-hungry older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), Goddess of Death.

After tracking down their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who is determined to die in his native Norway, the challenge facing Thor and Loki is reclaiming Asgard from Hela, who once led Asgad’s armies for Odin. At their first meeting, Hela shows her supremacy by smashing Thor’s hammer.

Travelling through a space portal, hammerless Thor is then captured and imprisoned on a parallel world called Sakaar. That’s where he meets the demented, flamboyant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the hard-drinking warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and a cheery, giant rock golem named Korg (Taika Waititi).

Since high-stakes gladiator matches are the Grandmaster’s passion, Thor’s long, blond locks are trimmed before he finds himself in the ring, facing “a friend from work” who turns out to be The Incredible Hulk, another key member of the Avengers.

After they do battle, Thor recruits Hulk and his alter-ego, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to take on Hela, a formidable opponent – with antlered battle headgear covering her jet-black hair.

Adroitly helmed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi, it’s irreverently scripted by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, revealing Chris Hemsworth’s surprising flair for physical comedy, making Thor more natural and appealing than he’s been in the past.

As for cameos: In a zany, identity-confusion ‘play’ at the very beginning, Matt Damon impersonates Loki, Sam Neill mimics Odin with Chris Hemsworth’s brother Liam as a fake Thor – plus, later, Benedict Cumberbatch pops up as Dr. Strange.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Thor: Ragnarok” is a silly, superhero 7. It’s thunderful!

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“All I See Is You”

Susan Granger’s review of “All I See Is You” (Open Road)

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The concept of blindness has resulted in some fascinating films, starting with Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” in 1931, followed by “A Patch of Blue,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Wait Until Dark” and “Scent of a Woman” and “Ray” – to name a few. Unfortunately, “All I See Is You” isn’t one of them.

Set in Bangkok. Thailand, this psychodrama revolves around Gina (Blake Lively), who is legally blind, and her husband James (Jason Clarke). After visiting an ophthalmologist (Danny Huston), Gina undergoes a corneal transplant to restore sight to her right eye after her vision was damaged in an automobile accident many years earlier.

As Gina begins to perceive the world around her more clearly, she recognizes that not only is their apartment a disappointment but so is her husband. When they go to Barcelona to visit Gina’s sister Carla (Ahna O’Reilly) and her artist husband Ramon (Miquel Fernandez), who take them to a grotesquely garish peep show, Gina also realizes that certain aspects of her sexuality are unfulfilled.

Once they get back to Bangkok, Gina’s increasing dissatisfaction with their apartment results in Jason’s agreeing to buy a house, one that can accommodate a child. And her distress about not getting pregnant is relieved after an encounter with a hunky Daniel (Wes Chatham), whom she recognizes as a fellow swimmer from the gym.

Of course, the fact that increasingly insecure James was told by another specialist that his sperm were not viable complicates matters – along with mysterious difficulties involving Gina’s steroid eye drops.

Working from a weak script he wrote with Sean Conway, director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “World War Z”) flounders, while Blake Lively’s limited acting range is disappointing.  The most memorable scene chronicles Gina’s visit to Bangkok’s famed flower market when she first begins to recognize colors.

In retrospect, Lively was far more effective in the terror thriller “The Shallows,” “The Age of Adaline” and TV’s “Gossip Girl.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “All I See Is You” is a tepid 3 – with an absurd conclusion.

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“Walking Out”

Susan Granger’s review of “Walking Out” (IFC Films)

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Montana-born filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith craft this father/son saga as a tense survival story, reminiscent of “The Revenant” and “Mountain Men.”

It begins as 14 year-old David (Josh Wiggins), who lives with his divorced mother in Texas, reluctantly arrives in snowy Livingston, Montana, to join his father, Cal (Matt Bomer), for their annual visit.

A rugged outdoorsman/hunter, Cal is determined to share his knowledge and love of the frigid wilderness with his iPhone-addicted son. He’s been meticulously tracking a moose so David can score his “first kill.” That rite-of-passage incites both edgy anticipation and fear in tongue-tied David.

“Never kill anything except for food,” Cal cautions as part of bonding with David. Cal’s resolve is intercut with vivid flashbacks to his own childhood 30 years earlier, when he went hunting with his father (Bill Pullman) and killed his first moose.

After hiking for hours through mountainous territory, David and Cal discover that the moose they’d intended to shoot was already killed – by a rogue grizzly bear, so Cal kills a bull elk instead.

As they’re hacking up the meat, David is attacked by a mother grizzly whose cub was killed by the same rogue bear. His hand badly injured, David climbs a tree. Desperately hanging onto his perch, David accidentally fires his rifle and the bullet shatters his father’s knee.

Unable to walk, Cal urges David to go for help, but David realizes that he cannot leave his critically wounded father alone. So he hoists Cal onto his back and treks down the mountain in a blinding blizzard, terrified that he won’t be able to find his way back to the tiny cabin where they’d spent the night.

Adapting a short story by David Quammen, Alex and Andre Smith, collaborating with cinematographer Todd McMullen, capture the majestic grandeur of the mountains and rare glimpses of wildlife.

In one scene, a curious young deer comes close to Cal’s face and licks it. According to Matt Bomer, that ‘real’ encounter was “a kind of spiritual experience. One of those things you hope you can just be in the moment for.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Walking Out” is a spare but incredibly sensitive 7.

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“Seder”

Susan Granger’s review of “Seder” (Hartford Stage)

 

Not since “Judgment at Nuremberg” have I seen a play as powerful and persuasive about how much guilt and responsibility an individual must bear for crimes committed or condoned by her.

Set in 2002 in Budapest, Hungary, it begins with elderly Erzsike (Mia Dillon) touring the House of Terror, a museum of war atrocities, and spotting her own photograph prominently displayed on the Wall of Murderers.

That night, Erzsike’s younger daughter, Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), has invited an American friend, David (Steven Rattzii), to their apartment to show them how to celebrate the Jewish Seder, or Passover.

Years ago, Erzsike rejected her Jewish heritage but she’s agreed to this uneasy family gathering in hopes of reuniting with her long-estranged older daughter Judit (Brigit Huppuch).

The Seder ceremony recalls the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. As the dinner ritual unfolds, sinister family secrets are spilled, revolving around Judit’s outrage over Erzsike’s involvement while working as a typist for the AVO (Hungary’s KGB).

“I did the best I could,” Erzsike says, defensively. “I just did what I was told.”

“A good person stands up for humanity,” self-righteous Judit retorts in a fiery exchange.

Heading the superb acting ensemble, Mia Dillon delivers a disturbingly textured portrait, miraculously transforming into her younger self in flashbacks, relating how she risked exposure by altering records of innocent prisoners and why she sexually succumbed to her predatory boss Attila (Jeremy Webb), who arranged her marriage to the late Tamas (Liam Craig).

Playwright Sarah Gancher, collaborating with director Elizabeth Williamson, illuminates this true story with intensity, vision and imagination. The authenticity is amplified by Nick Vaughan’s evocative set, Ilona Somogyi’s costumes, Marcus Dilliard’s lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound.

In addition, the Hartford Stage provides fascinating information about post-WWII Hungarian history in the playbill and on wall displays.

“Seder” has just received The Edgerton Foundation’s New Play Award – and it’s richly deserved.

“Seder” runs through November 12 at the Hartford Stage. For tickets, call the box-office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

“Jane”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jane” (National Geographic)

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National Geographic’s new documentary about Jane Goodall reveals how the acclaimed naturalist arrived in Gombe, Tanzania, in the 1960s and chronicles her fascination with chimpanzees.

What makes it extraordinary is director Brett Morgen’s use of rare 16-millimeter footage shot by Jane’s husband, Hugo van Lawick. Previously thought to be lost, it was discovered in 2014 in a storage unit and has been cleverly intercut with recent interviews with the legendary primatologist as she reflects on her remarkable life.

“From the age of 10, I dreamed of going to live with wild animals and write books about them,” she notes. “Nobody knew anything about chimpanzees. There were no methods or field research. To learn about chimps meant being with them and gaining their trust. So that’s what I did.”

Barefoot, petite Jane Goodall met Hugo van Lawick when the Dutch photographer was dispatched by National Geographic to chronicle her remarkable work in the Gombe Wilderness:

“Proof from van Lawick’s footage – showing chimpanzees kissing, embracing, holding hands, grooming one another, begging for food, showing they have a dark side to their nature, but also compassion, love and altruism, clearly illustrating that they can be angry, sad and die of grief – finally forced scientists to admit that we’re not the only creatures on the planet with personality, mind and emotions. We are part of the animal kingdom, not separated from it.”

While van Lawick was capturing on film significant moments of Jane’s interaction with the chimpanzees, they fell in love and were married in 1964. Soon after, they had a son, nicknamed “Grub,” who accompanied them everywhere, even when van Lawick was transferred to Africa’s Serengeti. But Jane’s heart remained with her work in Gombe; they eventually separated in 1974, sharing custody of Grub.

Now 83, Goodall still travels around the world, advocating for conservancy, and she served as an advisor on “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jane” is an enthralling, enlightening 8 – an absolute delight!

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“Suburbicon”

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

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One of the great disappointments of the Fall season is this collaboration between George Clooney and the Coen brothers, revolving around skullduggery in the suburbs in the summer of 1959.

Like Levitttown, Suburbia is a peaceful, prefab, homogenized community with affordable homes and friendly neighbors. Until an African-American couple, the Mayers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke), move in with their young son Andy (Tony Espinosa).

Their presence arouses so much ire that a racist petition is circulated and a riot erupts. The police are summoned, but no one does anything about the bigotry and torment that they’re forced to endure.

Meanwhile, across the backyard, there’s a home invasion. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his paraplegic wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose’s twin sister Margaret (Julianne Moore) are tied up and chloroformed by thugs (Alex Hassell, Corey Allen Kotler) – and Rose dies.

But when Gardner and Margaret refuse to identify the crooks in a police lineup, plucky Nicky begins to suspect that his dour father and saucy aunt are involved in his mother’s death. That’s confirmed when he catches them having sex in the basement.

Nicky’s misgivings are shared by Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaacs), a savvy insurance claims investigator who quickly realizes that the accident that confined Rose to a wheelchair and now her death don’t seem like coincidences, particularly since dim-witted Gardner’s Mob debts have been mounting.

Foolishly re-written by director Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov (“The Monuments Men”) from a 1986 screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen, it’s not funny enough to be a satirical black comedy nor cohesive enough to qualify as a subversive crime caper.

Significantly, there’s no link between the Lodges’ and the Mayers’ storylines except that their amiable sons play baseball together. Indeed, “Suburbicon” fails on almost every level except stylish production design; James D. Bissell’s work is a superb recreation of the cheery, cloistered, superficially idyllic Eisenhower era.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Suburbicon” is a sour, substandard 4, a murky melodrama.

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“Jungle”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jungle” (Momentum Pictures)

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There are two extraordinary aspects to Australian director Greg McLean’s latest adventure: 1) it’s based on a true story, and 2) diminutive Daniel Radcliffe actually starved himself to emaciation to achieve authenticity.

In 1981, when 21 year-old Yossi Ghinsberg (Radcliffe) leaves his family in Tel Aviv to spend a year traveling in the United States and South America, they fear the worst – perhaps with good reason when he joins a backpacking expedition in Bolivia.

Friendly, gullible Yossi is befriended in La Paz by enigmatic Karl Ruchprecter (Thomas Kretschmann), an Austrian who spins tales about lost Inca tribes and rivers of gold, hidden deep in the Amazonian jungle.

Impulsively, Yossi convinces two other trekkers – Kevin Gale (Alex Russell), an American photographer, and bespectacled Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson), a gentle Swiss schoolteacher – to join them on the Tuichi River expedition.

As their trail-leader, Karl claims not only to know the rainforest territory but he also shows them a map, indicating just where they’ll walk. Arrogantly, he sets a gung-ho pace which soon causes enough friction that the original foursome decide to split into pairs.

While Karl and Marcus, whose feet are badly blistered, continue to trudge on-foot, impatient Kevin opts to build a raft to sail down the rapids, accompanied by Yossi. But shortly after they’re launched, the rickety raft crashes into a rock, and Yossi is thrown into the churning water.

Wearily dragging himself to shore with a bad head wound, Yossi is all alone – with Kevin nowhere to be found. It is man-versus-nature, as Yossi encounters one ominous obstacle after another, grievously suffering, both physically and mentally.

Based on Yossi Ghinsberg 2005 memoir, it’s scripted by Justin Monjo, who fails to properly flesh out any of the supporting characters, concentrating totally on Yossi and his drug-enhanced hallucinations.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jungle” is a survivalist 6 – and kudos to Daniel Radcliffe for rising to this grueling wilderness challenge.

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