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“Flatliners”

Susan Granger’s review of “Flatliners” (Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems)

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Hollywood has suffered a disastrous summer because the major studios have raided the franchise larder too many times – and this unnecessary remake is one of the worst.

Back in 1990, Joel Schumacher’s psychological horror/thriller picture was not only Oscar-nominated but made the top 20 box-office hits of the year. Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon, it had a provocative premise which is repeated this time ‘round.

Riddled by guilt over her role in the drowning death of her sister, medical student Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page) is morbidly curious about the afterlife. Determined to use an MRI to map brain activity after ‘death,’ she initiates an experiment in which her heart is stopped, she ‘dies’ and is then revived.

Afterwards, Courtney discovers that her consciousness has been expanded and her abilities amplified; she not only plays Debussy on the piano and bakes bread but also diagnoses her patients’ symptoms with unerring accuracy, recalling everything she’s every learned.

Naturally, her colleagues – insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), cocky Jamie (James Norton) and driven Marlo (Nina Dobrev) – are determined to have their turn in the chair in the hospital’s sublevel C ‘lab’. Only reluctant, ex-fireman Ray (Diego Luna) tenaciously abstains.

Inevitably, there’s a traumatic price to be paid for dabbling in this ethical/moral/legal dilemma – and it’s horrifyingly high.

Working from Ben Ripley’s shallow, utterly predictable, rebooted script, Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) lumbers the contrived, repetitive narrative along at a slow pace, delivering only banal imagery and minimal, generic scares.

In homage to his role of Nelson Wright, Kiefer Sutherland makes a brief appearance as the authoritative, gray-haired dean of the medical school.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Flatliners” is a tepid 3. Why bother?

03

“Victoria & Abdul”

Susan Granger’s review of “Victoria & Abdul” (Focus Features/Working Title)

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Undiscovered until 2010, this revelatory historical footnote chronicles an improbable friendship that enhanced the elderly British monarch’s final years.

Bookended by a prologue and conclusion set in India, the period dramedy begins with a vivid depiction of how widowed, 81 year-old Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) was not only weary but also utterly bored by her perpetual Royal duties.

Until one evening at a dinner, she spots Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a tall, turbaned Muslim servant recently dispatched to London from Agra, along with a companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), to present Her Royal Highness with a ceremonial coin for her 1887 Golden Jubilee.

Ignoring protocol, guileless Abdul makes not only makes eye contact with the Queen but also kisses her shoe. The next day, she imperiously demands that he and Mohammed remain at court.

Before long, Abdul becomes HRH’s “munshi” (teacher/spiritual advisor) and constant companion, piquing her curiosity about the Urdu language and the tenets of Islam. “We are here for a greater purpose,” he tells her.

As Empress of India, she wants to know more about that country and culture, which increasingly appalls her bigoted, jealous courtiers, headed by Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), and repressive, resentful son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Prince of Wales, who subsequently became King Edward VII.

Inevitably, complications arise, revolving around Abdul’s marital status and health, but they remain close friends for 14 years – until Victoria’s death in 1901.

Freely adapted from a book by Shrabani Basu, Queen Victoria’s handwritten journals in Urdu and Abdul Karim’s private notebooks, it’s somewhat superficially scripted by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), who fails to flesh out Abdul’s character, discreetly skirting the obvious racial and colonial aspects.

But by coupling Judi Dench with Bollywood’s Ali Fazal, director Stephen Frears (“Philomena”) ignites an irresistible chemistry. And Dame Judi, who played a younger version of Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), commands every scene she’s in.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Victoria & Abdul” is a sublimely subtle, ravishing 7 – aimed specifically at an older audience.

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“American Made”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Made” (Universal Pictures)

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As Gary Spinelli’s story unfolds, it’s obviously “based on a true lie,” meaning that the facts have been embellished but several things are clear.

Back in the 1980s, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) was a hotshot TWA pilot from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who sneaked Cuban cigars in his luggage and relieved his in-flight boredom by flipping a few switches and careening around the wild blue, as the resulting turbulence abruptly awakened sleeping passengers.

His antics caught the attention of shady CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who gave Seal his own Cessna and offered a monetary deal he couldn’t refuse, despite incredulously inquiring “Is all this legal?”

According to glib Schafer, legitimacy was not a worry, including Seal’s initially surreptitiously snapping surveillance photographs and, later, covertly smuggling cocaine and AK-47s across the border into Central America.

Working as a double agent, he consorted with Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Majia) of Colombia’s Medellin cartel, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (Alberto Ospino) and the Nicaraguan Contras.

Collaborating with Doug Liman, who launched the “Bourne” franchise and scored with Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” proves a perfect match between director and star, interweaving authentic news footage and touching on real-life corruption and a scandal that allegedly involved Lieut. Col. Oliver North and the National Security Council, along with President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

Flashing his ingratiating smile, Cruise, as Seal, had no trouble convincing his at-first skeptical wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) that she shouldn’t have a problem with all the cash coming in – so much, in fact, that all the closets in their house were stuffed with it, along with numerous duffels hidden in underground crypts.

The only fly-in-the-ointment turns out to be Lucy’s rotten hillbilly brother (Caleb Landry Jones), who catches the attention of their local sheriff (Jesse Plemons).

FYI: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cross Creek Pictures decided to cut a scene showing Seal with then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, who was receiving a lap dance at a strip club, reportedly because they didn’t want the film to be overly political.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Made” is an edgy, engaging, adrenaline-charged 8, proving once again America is the land of opportunity.

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“Stronger”

Susan Granger’s review of “Stronger” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

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This is the inspiring, true story of 28 year-old Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs in the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Hard-drinking Bauman, who worked in Costco’s deli department, wasn’t running that April day. He was a spectator, waiting at the finish line for his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), a hospital administrator, who was running for charity. They’d broken up and he was hoping they’d get back together.

Unfortunately, he just happened to be standing right next to where one of the terrorists had planted a pressure-cooker bomb. It blew off both his legs at the knee. Both Bauman and his cowboy-hat wearing rescuer, Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), became the symbols of “Boston Strong,” thrust into the spotlight by the media.

On hearing that her son was a double-amputee, Bauman’s overprotective mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), with whom he still lived in Chelmsford, was devastated, turning to cigarettes and booze. Meanwhile, his father (Clancy Brown), uncle (Lenny Clarke) and the rest of his working-class family yell, curse and trade insults with one another.

Although Bauman vowed to do whatever it takes to walk again, during the ensuing months of agonizing rehabilitation, he was forced to deal with seemingly insurmountable mental and physical hurdles, many thrust on him because he’d become famous.

“I’m a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?”

At a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup game, when Erin pushes him out onto the ice in his wheelchair to wave the American flag, the ensuing noise and chaos give him a panic attack.

Based on the memoir by Jeff Bauman and Brett Witter, it’s scripted by John Pollono and directed by David Gordon Green, who focus on relationships and, predictably, conclude with footage of the real Jeff and Erin.

Although Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a memorable performance, it’s too bad that a disabled actor wasn’t given the chance. Years ago, William Wyler cast Harold Russell, who lost his hands in a training accident during W.W.II, as a veteran in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

FYI: This is the second film about the Boston Marathon bombings, following Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day,” focusing on the manhunt for the culprits.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Stronger” is a steadfast 7, revealing the kind of faith it takes to survive this kind of ordeal.

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“Desperate Measures”

Susan Granger’s review of “Desperate Measures” (York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church)

 

Set on America’s Western prairie in 1890 and inspired by Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” this world-premiere production of an imaginatively spirited new musical begins on a dire note.

Hot-tempered cowboy Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) is incarcerated at the End-of-the-Trail Jail, ready to be hanged for killing a man in self-defense in a bar fight. After conversing with sympathetic Sheriff Green (Peter Saide), Johnny realizes that only hope rests on his demure sister Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), a novice nun at the nearby Our Lady of the Tumbleweeds Mission.

If sweet Susanna can persuade smarmy Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) to spare his life, perhaps Johnny can marry the woman he loves, voluptuous saloon stripper Bella Rose (Lauren Molina). But the lecherous Governor will only grant Susanna’s request if she agrees to surrender her chastity to him.

That unexpected complication leads to Shakespeare’s oft-used “bed trick,” in which a gullible clod is duped into thinking he’s bedding one woman, only to discover it’s another, followed by a bride-switch, presided over by a perpetually inebriated, Nietzsche-quoting priest (Gary Marachek).

Working from Peter Kellogg’s slyly conceived book and lyrics – that cleverly utilize contemporary language in iambic-pentameter – set to David Friedman’s catchy, cheerful, country music, director/choreographer Bill Castellino keeps the comedy clipping along at a fast pace.

Darting about James Morgan’s barn-siding set, the six-member ensemble is enchanting and their singing soars, one melody after another. Kudos also to Nicole Wee’s period costumes, Paul Miller’s lighting, and Julian Evans’ sound design. David Hancock Turner’s backstage band combines guitar, banjo, mandolin, double bass and piano music.

If you’re looking for fresh, exuberant fun, head over to the York Theatre on Lexington Avenue for this rollicking romp!

 

Sex with Strangers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sex with Strangers” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

There’s a pervasive sadness that dominates Laura Eason’s timely observations in her contemporary dramedy about how a serious novelist and a sex-obsessed blogger cope with ambition and passion in the internet age of social media.

At a tiny bed-and-breakfast in rural Michigan, Olivia (Jessica Love), a gifted but discouraged novelist in her late 30s, meets Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), a brash, 28 year-old blogger who arrives unexpectedly late one evening during a snowstorm.

To his chagrin, he quickly discovers that there’s no phone service or Wi-Fi, wailing, “I can’t get online? People will think I’m dead!”

Although Olivia knows nothing about him, he’s read her ill-fated first novel and is eager to see her latest manuscript, although she now describes herself as a “hobbyist,” admitting she’d rather die in obscurity than subject herself to “anonymous strangers staying horrible, misspelled things about my work.”

Flattered after he heaps effusive praise on her talent, she’s besotted by his confident, rakish charm. Soon they’re impetuously locked in a torrid embrace. The next day, her natural reticence is once again overcome by his exuberant male energy.

As it turns out, Ethan is an erotica star, chronicling his casual sexual conquests in a blog: Sex With Strangers. Using his internet connections, he introduces Olivia to his agent, helping her get published once again. But complications arise, revolving around printed books versus e-books and the inevitability of jealousy when she achieves more literary respect than he ever will.

Curiously, love never enters the equation, since she – quite rightly – distrusts him from the getgo. They never establish an intimate friendship, let alone a viable relationship, which inevitably leads to loneliness. Torrid lust between the dust-jackets turns out to be an anti-romantic comedy.

Astutely directed by Katherine M. Carter, both Jessica Love and Chris Ghaffari deliver creditable performances, aided by Edward T. Morris’ spacious set, Caitlin Cisek’s authentic costumes, Alan Edwards’ evocative lighting, and Beth Lake’s sound design.

Since its premiere in 2011 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, “Sex with Strangers” has been produced more than 50 times with companies in New York, London, Sydney, and Buenos Aires. And playwright Laura Eason is perhaps best known as a writer on TV’s “House of Cards.”

“Sex with Strangers” runs through Oct. 14 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org.

 

“Battle of the Sexes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Battle of the Sexes” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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This sports drama serves up the story behind the famed 1973 exhibition tennis match between 29 year-old Billie Jean King and 55 year-old Bobby Riggs, who bragged he could beat any woman player in the world.

As reigning Wimbledon champion two years running, King (Emma Stone) was in her prime, while brash, gambling-addicted Riggs (Steve Carell) was Wimbledon’s champion back in 1939.

So with great fanfare on September 30, King was carried, like Cleopatra on a chaise, into the Houston Astrodome by bare-chested guys, while Riggs, wearing a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket, arrived by rickshaw. At the net, King handed Riggs a squirming piglet, confirming his male chauvinist status.

Squaring off for the $100,000 prize, it was a milestone for the women’s liberation movement. At that time under the aegis of condescending Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), women on the tournament circuit earned far less than men. So King was determined to get respect and equal pay for female players.

Meanwhile, off the court, Billie Jean was experiencing a different dilemma: her sexual awakening. Although married to supportive Larry King (Austin Stowell), she was attracted to hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  While facing a palimony suit in 1981, King became the first famous athlete to come out as a lesbian.

Fresh from her Oscar-winning “La La Land,” Emma Stone added 15 pounds of muscle to her slim frame, nailing King’s competitive style, aided by her athletic stunt-double, NCAA’s Kaitlyn Christian. Supported by Steve Carell, who captures Riggs’ desperation, they’re a winning match.

Working from Simon Beaufoy’s subtle screenplay, husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) cleverly capture the tenor of the time, utilizing actual footage of Howard Cosell’s insidiously sexist commentary and offering glimpses of fashion designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) and ‘World Tennis’ magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).

FYI: According to Forbes, Emma Stone is now the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Battle of the Sexes” aces an empowering 8, focusing on the social change that swept the country during the last quarter of the 20th century.

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“The Lego Ninjago Movie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lego Ninjago Movie” (Warner Bros.)

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Bookended by two live-action sequences featuring Jackie Chan as the Chinatown curio store narrator, this animated feature delves once again into the world of plastic toys.

Indeed, it’s almost a duplicate of “The Lego Movie” (2014), redundantly utilizing a wise guru and a sought-after Ultimate Weapon that turns out to be common household object.

In the Asian island city of Ninjago, there’s this average high school student, Lloyd (Dave Franco), whose absentee father is wicked, ego-maniacal Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), making Lloyd an outcast and giving him obvious Daddy issues.

Riffing on the Luke Skywalker “Star Wars” mythology, it revives the combative good son/evil father concept – with Lloyd’s overprotective mother KoKo (Olivia Munn) serving as the voice of reason.

Meanwhile, martial arts Master Wu (Jackie Chan) has been training a color-coded, elemental Ninja team to battle pompous, four-armed Warlord Garmadon, who happens to be his brother. And Lloyd, as the Green Dragon Ninja, secretly trains with them.

There’s the Red Fire Ninja Kai (Michael Pena), the Blue Lightning Ninja Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), the Black Water Ninja Nya (Abbi Jacobson), the half-human/half-robot White Ice Ninja Zane (Zach Woods), and the Black Earth Ninja Cole (Fred Armisen). They’re Power Ranger-like warriors.

Eventually, the Ninjas must team up with Lord Garmadon to save their metropolis from annihilation by “Meowthra,” a giant house cat.

Utilizing a script filled with pop-culture puns and gags that have been cobbled together by a veritable gang of screenwriters, directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan rely on Animal Logic animation – with original directors/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller now taking producer credits.

FYI: Ninjago is pronounced two different ways. When referring to the fictional city, it’s nin-JAH-go. But when it’s used as a battle cry, it sounds like, “Go, Ninja, Go!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lego Ninjago Movie” is a frenetic 5, familiar family fare that becomes another brick-building commercial.

05

“Friend Request”

Susan Granger’s review of “Friend Request” (Entertainment Studios/Global Media)

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Like “Unfriended,” Simon Verhoeven taps into social media to propel this tech-terror thriller which starts out with a provocative premise before it inevitably dissolves into clichéd carnage.

College student Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is undoubtedly one of the most popular coeds on campus. Since she has more than 800 ‘friends,’ she graciously accepts a ‘friend’ request from lonely Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers), a strange, hoodie-clad, Goth-like classmate.

But then Marina becomes obsessed with Laura, who lies to her about a birthday party. That tips troubled Marina over the edge, causing Laura to ‘unfriend’ her. In retaliation, Marina posts a video in which she’s seen committing suicide by hanging herself and setting herself on fire.

In an accompanying message, Marina vows that Laura will soon understand what real loneliness is. And that’s just the beginning of the torment Marina directs toward Laura. Cyberstalking reigns, as horrific videos suddenly begin appearing under Laura’s name.

Unable to delete the videos and cancel her demonic on-line account, Laura takes desperate measures, enlisting the services of a hacker, Kobe (Connor Paolo), when her real-life friends start being ceremonially killed by grisly, gruesome, supernatural methods, particularly CGI wasps.

“That’s not code,” Kobe declares, examining the mystical videos of their deaths. “I think it’s a ritual.”

Or, as the tagline proclaims, “Evil is trending.”

Co-writing the screenplay with Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch, German director Simon Verhoeven is the son of director Michael Verhoeven and actress Senta Berger. He is not related to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Friend Request” is a formulaically trashy, throwaway 3, filled with far too many jump scares.

03

“Literally, Right Before Aaron”

Susan Granger’s review of “Literally, Right Before Aaron” (Screen Media Films)

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Writer/director/editor/composer Ryan Eggold relates the strange, agonizing story of lovelorn, thirtysomething Adam (Justin Long), who gets a call from his ex-girlfriend Allison (Cobie Smulders), telling him that she’s getting married and inviting him to her upcoming wedding.

Against the advice of his best friend Mark (John Cho), hapless Adam decides to pack up his VW Beetle and drive back home to San Francisco to attend the nuptials, hoping to convince himself and everyone else, including her fiancé Aaron (Ryan Hansen), that he’s truly happy for her.

As one embarrassment after another humiliates Adam, Mark echoes the viewer’s sentiment by plaintively asking, “What are you thinking? Why are you doing this?”

Whiny Adam is an aspiring nature-documentary filmmaker who is being browbeaten by his employer, egocentric Orson Schwartzman (Peter Gallagher), host of TV’s “Nature Calls…”

But he isn’t able to embark on his future until he emotionally discards the idyllic concept of fairy-tale love that has kept him enmeshed with Allison, his college sweetheart.

And when other well-wishers ask why he’s there, someone says, “Adam and Allison used to go out,” and another adds, “Literally, right before Aaron.” Hence the title.

According to Ryan Eggold’s Director’s Statement, this an “anti-romantic” comedy, relating an unconventional story, juxtaposing the incongruity between how we expect things to turn out and how they actually do.

Actor Justin Long duly embodies masochistic Adam, while Cobie Smulders (TVs “How I Met Your Mother”) is enchanting as Allison. They’re supported by a steadfast roster that includes Dana Delany, Luis Guzman, Kristen Schaal and Lea Thompson – experienced thespians whose considerable talents are wasted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Literally, Right After Aaron” is pathetic 4, revolving around a petulant jerk.

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