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“Passengers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Passengers” (Columbia Pictures/Sony)

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It’s a terrific sci-fi premise: Two passengers on a 120-year journey on the immense, ultra-luxurious spaceship Avalon emerge from their hibernation pods 90 years too early.

Along with 5000 paying passengers and 258 crew, they’re headed for a distant colony on a planet called Homestead II, which offers a ‘promised land’ alternative to “overpopulated, overpriced and overrated Earth.”

After a damaging asteroid strike, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) emerges from cryogenic sleep. Roaming around, he realizes that he’s the only one awake – with just a genial bartender, an android named Arthur (Michael Sheen), for company.

Jim is a mechanical engineer, so he spends a full year trying to remedy the situation – to no avail.

When he’s almost suicidal with loneliness and desperation, Jim finds another awakened passenger, a beautiful New York writer, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). Naturally, a romantic relationship develops but it’s built on a deception which, inevitably, must be revealed.

To tell you the subsequent turns and twists would spoil the suspense.

Existentially written by Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus,” “Dr. Strange” and the upcoming “Mummy”) and helmed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”), it’s filled with profound moral and philosophical dilemmas. Indeed, this provocative, character-driven screenplay was featured in the 2007 Blacklist of the “most liked” unmade scripts of the year.

In addition, it’s well-cast with remarkably innovative visual and production design, including an automat-style cafeteria, excellent CGI, and Aurora has a sleek travel wardrobe to-die-for. It’s obviously no coincidence that Aurora is also the name of the title character in Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

Unfortunately, disappointment settles in during the concluding act, which seems to have been adjusted by a focus group that demanded some spectacular action/thriller sequences.

FYI:  Years ago, when Weinstein owned the project, Keanu Reeves was slated to star with Reese Witherspoon, then Rachel McAdams. But that didn’t pan out. So Sony’s Joe Rothman cast likeable, bankable Pratt and Lawrence.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Passengers” is an absorbing 6 that, sadly, squanders its compelling castaway concept.

06

 

“Why Him?”

Susan Granger’s review of “Why Him” (20th Century Fox)

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According to writer/director John Hamburg, the idea for this crude, crass comedy about an uptight father meeting his daughter’s obnoxious boyfriend came from Shawn Levy when they were making “Night at the Museum.”

What particularly intrigued Hamburg was how the world had changed since he made “Meet the Parents.” Previously, adults were in charge; now, young Silicon Valley techies have become billionaires. So he made that generational conflict the pivotal point.

Stanford senior Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch) is in love with 32 year-old Laird Mayhew (James Franco), an unconventional, narcissistic video-game mogul. And now her Midwestern parents are coming to California for Christmas.

Her doting father Ned (Bryan Cranston) and overprotective mother Barb (Megan Mullally) have no idea that Stephanie has quit college and moved in with profanity-spewing Laird until they – along with Stephanie’s teenage brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) – arrive at his Xanadu-like mansion in Palo Alto.

Laird’s zany estate is managed by his trainer Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) and a disembodied computer guru, Justine (Kaley Cuoco) – with a New Age chef serving edible soil, topped with plankton foam.

Laird’s wealth is even more galling to Ned, whose old-fashioned printing business in Michigan, is rapidly failing, since Laird has a paperless house, fitted with electronic Japanese commodes with bidet sprays, eliminating the need for toilet paper.

Scripted by Hamburg, Ian Helfer and Jonah Hill, it’s occasionally amusing but, since Stephanie’s character is so underwritten, there’s no empathy for her choice of outlandishly eccentric, shrewdly manipulative Laird.

There are cameos by Elon Musk and the Band KISS, along with timely relevance when suspicious Ned investigates Laird’s finances, discovering that much has been fraudulently inflated.

But many gags are telegraphed in advance, like the inevitable disaster involving an aquarium holding a dead moose entombed in its own urine. And while Ned realizes Gustav’s ambushes parallel Kato’s in “Pink Panther” movies, neither Laird nor Gustav understand the cultural reference.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Why Him?” is a blatantly raunchy 4, prompting the question: Why bother?

04

 

“The Band’s Visit”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Band’s Visit” (Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company)

 

The best news out of the Middle East this year is composer David Yazbek’s fresh, funny, engaging take on cross-cultural miscommunication:

“Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited for the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva in Israel. It’s an important engagement since budget cuts and internal reorganization have threatened the Egyptian musicians’ very existence.

Dressed in crisp, robin’s-egg-blue uniforms and observing full military protocol, they arrive in Tel Aviv with no one to greet them. Unable to contact their Israeli hosts or the Egyptian consulate, they board a bus that’s, ostensibly, bound for their destination but, instead, wind up in a dreary, Negev desert town called Bat Hatikva.

To his dismay, their dignified conductor, Tewfiq Zakaria (Tony Shalhoub), discovers that substituting “B” for “P” makes a major difference, since “B” denotes “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah,” according to Dina (Katrina Lenk), the radiant owner of a local café, singing, “Welcome to Nowhere.”

Since they’re stuck overnight, Dina graciously offers to host Tewiq, an emotionally restrained widower, and Haled (Ari’el Stachel), the flirtatious trumpeter who asks everyone he meets, “Do you know Chet Baker?” before launching into his own rendition of “My Funny Valentine.”

The others – each with his own angst – stay at the café or with Itzik (John Cariani), his resentful wife Iris (Kristen Sieh) and her father, Avrum (Andrew Polk).

Inevitably, the evening leads to some curious confusion, a bit of chaos in a 1970s roller rink, and a large measure of compassion – on both sides.

Adapted by Itamar Moses from from Eran Kolirin’s ingratiating 2007 Israeli comedy and fluidly directed by David Cromer, it’s wistfully droll and charming, subtly incorporating various Middle Eastern influences. The climactic number, “Answer Me,” featuring the entire ensemble, is splendiferous.

“The Band’s Visit” should delight theater aficionados who enjoyed David Yazbek’s previous shows: “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

Set designer Scott Pask inventively utilizes the rotating stage; Sarah Laux’s costumes are austere, yet exotic; and Tyler Micoleau’s intense lighting is effective, particularly evoking the desert at night.

In a limited run, “The Band’s Visit’ plays at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater – at 336 West 20th Street – until January 1, 2017.

“A Monster Calls”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Monster Calls” (Focus Features)

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Dark, gothic fantasy abounds in Juan Antonio Bayona’s empathetic exploration of how an adolescent British lad faces the terminal illness of his beloved mother.

Bullied at school, 12 year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) suffers from a recurring nightmare about his ailing Mum (Felicity Jones), for whom various cancer treatments don’t seem to be working.

Her rapid decline may force Conor to move in with his imperious grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) or relocate to America with his re-married dad (Toby Kebbell), who has established a new family there.

At exactly 12:07 a.m., Conor imagines that the enormous yew tree in a nearby church cemetery turns into a huge Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who stomps to his house, reaches into his bedroom window and grabs Conor, saying, “I have come to get you.”

The Monster proposes telling him three stories on three consecutive nights in exchange for Conor’s sharing – on the fourth night – the terrible truth about his own horrifically repetitive nightmare.

Each visually effective tale relates to what Conor has been experiencing, since his fiercely protective mother doesn’t want to admit what’s really happening to her – because it’s too much for either of them to bear. And each story teaches Conor about courage and faith.

Scripted by Patrick Ness from his own 2011 novel, this melodramatic fable about dealing with grief and its attendant anger is directed by Spain’s J.A. Bayona, best known for helming “The Impossible” about a family that survives an Indian Ocean tsunami and a Spanish chiller called “The Orphanage.”

It’s also Patrick Ness’ tribute to his friend Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before being able to write it herself.

Next for J.A. Bayona is the sequel to “Jurassic World,” scheduled for 2018.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Monster Calls” is a shivery, insightful 7 – and truly heartbreaking.

07

“Star Wars: Rogue One”

Susan Granger’s review of “Star Wars: Rogue One” (Disney)

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas had a visionary concept of space-age mythology, utilizing droids, alien entities and aerial dogfights as background for a compelling human drama that evolved over the course of six films, creating a quasi-mystical epic.

But then in 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, planning a series of spinoffs,

In this installment, a prequel between “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” and “Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope,” the stars are gone and much of the spirit has been lost, leaving only a lot more wars.

After her backstory is established, resourceful Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) joins the Alliance, working with Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a ragtag group of freedom fighters, to steal plans for the Death Star, an immense galactic weapon designed by Jyn’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), from Darth Vader’s evil Empire.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. Combat prevails as a multitude of characters are all-too-briefly introduced, only to disappear into the ether from which they emerged.

There’s Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), Bodi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut Imwe, and a blind Ninja (Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen) who is guided by the Force – plus villainous Imperial overlord Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). James Earl Jones once-again voiced Darth Vader.

Cassian Andor’s black metallic robot, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), provides caustic comic relief – and there are some cool cameos, made possible by CGI and motion-capture technology.

Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy work with director Gareth Edwards (“Monsters,” “Godzilla”) and Industrial Light and Magic’s chief creative officer John Kroll to coalesce the fantasy around the scrappy warrior, Jyn Erso. Unfortunately, she lacks the spunky appeal of Daisy Ridley’s Rae in J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Star Wars: Rogue One” is a spacefaring 6 – like a big-screen computer game with lots of Stormtroopers.

06

 

“Hidden Figures”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hidden Figures” (20th Century Fox)

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Searching through history often reveals untold true stories that are hidden gems: this is one of them.

During the early 1960s, several African-American women worked for NASA, providing the mathematical data needed to launch America’s first successful space mission.

But, every day – in a myriad of ways – their integrity and perseverance were challenged by the hostile racism and inherent sexism of that period.

Graduating from college summa cum laude at the age of 18, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was, perhaps, the most brilliant mathematician of her time.

When the Space Task Group’s manager, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), finally admitted Katherine into the elite rocket scientists’ inner sanctum, she calculated trajectories for John Glenn’s Earth orbit in 1962 and subsequent missions.

But Katherine suffered daily humiliations, including not being allowed to use bathroom facilities in the building in which she worked and being assigned an often-empty ‘colored coffee’ thermos.

“They’ve never had a colored in here before,” personnel supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) explains.

Even Katherine’s admiring husband-to-be (Mahershala Ali) could not comprehend her aptitude for analytical geometry.

Katherine’s colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (R&B star Janelle Monae) were similarly humiliated, condescendingly referred to as ‘colored computers’ and paid considerably lower wages.

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the title aptly symbolizes the obscurity of black female statisticians during that segregated era – yet the screenplay by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) contains several moments of feel-good humor.

Like when Dorothy’s Chevy Bel-Air breaks down and a cop stops to question them. When they explain they work for NASA, he gives them a police escort to the research center at Langley, prompting Mary to quip, “We’re three Negro women chasing a white cop in 1961!”

As well as producing the film, Pharrell Williams also oversaw the musical elements and soundtrack.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hidden Figures” is an uplifting 8, delivering an inspiring message of hope.

08

 

“Loving”

Susan Granger’s review of “Loving” (Focus Features)

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Writer/director Jeff Nichols solemnly tackles one of the most influential Civil Rights cases of the late 1960s.

When his girlfriend Mildred (Ruth Negga) told bricklayer Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) that she was pregnant, he insisted on driving from rural Virginia to Washington, D.C. so they could get married.

Richard was Caucasian and Mildred was African-American; interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia in 1958 under an “anti-miscegenation” statute enacted in 1924.

After they returned home, Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) and his deputies burst into their bedroom to arrest them. The judge offered a one-year suspended sentence if they’d leave the state and not return for 25 years, noting:

“Almighty God created the races: white, black, yellow, Malay and red. He placed them on separate continents and, but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages.”

So the Lovings moved to Washington, D.C. But Mildred hated urban living and was determined to have Richard’s midwife mother (Sharon Blackwood) deliver their child. Which led to their second arrest.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1963 inspired Mildred to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred their plight to the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU lawyers (Nick Kroll, Jon Bass) gradually guided their case to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Loving vs. Virginia decision in 1967, which struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage – chronicled by a Life magazine photographer (Michael Shannon) as “The Crime of Being Married.”

But unlike “Sully,” which began with Capt. Sullenberger’s plane crash-landing in the Hudson River and went on to reveal “the rest of the story” – there are no dramatic disclosures that offer insight into the characters or their dilemma. Only historical facts, emphasizing stoic patience and perseverance.

Plus, Richard was a taciturn, monosyllabic, almost stone-faced fellow, and Mildred’s shy, soft-spoken demeanor was also extraordinarily low-key. Their reserved humility drains much of the drama out of this real-life story.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Loving” is a slow, sensitive, subdued 7 – timely primarily because it paved the way for the more recent controversy over same-sex marriage.

07

 

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812″

Susan Granger’s review of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (Imperial Theatre)

 

There has never been a more imaginative re-interpretation of an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” than this inventive electro-pop operetta which made its debut Off-Broadway at Ars Nova in 2012.

Written by composter Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, it’s become an eclectic, immersive theatrical experience that’s propelled by Josh Groban, making his Broadway debut.

Set just before Napoleon’s invasion, it revolves around Pierre (Groban), an unhappily married aristocrat. His diagrammed family tree is in the program. In their rousing “Prologue,” cast members urge you to read it in order to follow the complicated dramatic narrative.

Young Countess Natasha (Denee Benton) arrives in Moscow with her loving, protective cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) to stay with her god-mother Marya (Grace McLean), while her fiancée, Prince Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is away at the front.

Natasha’s initial meeting with Prince Andrey’s family goes badly. His spinster sister, Princess Mary (Gelsey Bell), notes that Natasha is “Too fashionably dressed, frivolous and vain,” while Natasha views Mary as “Too plain, affected, insolent and dry.”

Pierre’s scheming wife Helene (Amber Gray) flirts dangerously with Dolokhov (Nik Choksi), while her womanizing brother, Anatole (Lucas Steele), a callow cad, is determined to seduce lonely, impetuous Natasha, who doesn’t know he’s married. And so the decadent melodrama unfolds.

Wearing padding to increase his girth, along with a bushy beard, Josh Groban’s magnificent tenor resonates with melancholy, as he accompanies himself on the piano and accordion.

Also making her Broadway debut, Denee Benton has a lovely, lilting soprano. But Brittain Ashford’s soulful lamentations steal the show on more than one occasion.

The Imperial Theatre has been spectacularly reconfigured as an ornate cabaret by scenic designer Mimi Lien. Many audience members are seated onstage at tables and banquettes – with parquet runways for the actors in the orchestra and mezzanine. The walls are hung with gilt-framed Russian artwork and lush red velvet – with starburst chandeliers which lighting designer Bradley King uses to full advantage.

It’s a dazzling production, perhaps the most intoxicating musical since “Hamilton.”

“Rules Don’t Apply”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rules Don’t Apply” (20th Century-Fox)

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Watching this reminded me of when Elizabeth Taylor died. As I was chatting with another critic at a Manhattan screening, the twentysomething publicist asked, “Who’s Elizabeth Taylor?”

After years of gestation, Warren Beatty has created an absurdly nostalgic farce about aviation tycoon/film producer Howard Hughes. But do moviegoers remember either of them?

Beatty’s story begins with “Never check an interesting fact,” a quote attributed to Howard Hughes, known for being the most eccentric, elusive executive in Hollywood, as shown in the 1964 prologue.

Flash back to 1958, when an aspiring actress, virginal Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), arrives in Hollywood from Virginia with her devoutly Baptist mother (Annette Bening). Marla soon discovers she’s only one of many starlets summoned by Hughes and paid $400 a week to ‘stand by’ for RKO Pictures auditions.

After Marla’s assigned driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a pious Methodist with a fiancée in Fresno, recites the strict rules of her contract, he admits he’s never actually met Hughes, although he’s eager to get the mercurial mogul to invest in a real estate deal he’s devised.

As time goes by, Marla gets involved with weirdly obsessive-compulsive Hughes (Warren Beatty), wistfully warbling the title song, as Frank becomes one of Hughes’ most trusted aides. But necessity cools their incipient romance until they both become disappointed by Hughes’ bizarre dream factory.

Scripted by director Beatty (“Bulworth,” “Reds,” “Dick Tracy”) from a story he wrote with Bo Goldman (“Melvin and Howard”), it’s as elegant and enigmatic as its subject. Perhaps more autobiographical than Beatty cares to admit, since he and his sister, Shirley MacLaine, were raised by Baptists in Virginia. But that’s just conjecture.

Charismatic Beatty also receives support from Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen.

Wall Street’s Steven Mnuchin, President-Elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, does a cameo with Oliver Platt, playing financiers kept waiting at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Other films about Howard Hughes include “The Aviator” (2004), “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988), “Melvin and Howard” (1980) and “Caught” (1949).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rules Don’t Apply” is a stylish, yet stilted 6, inevitably culminating in disillusionment.

06

 

“Jackie”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jackie” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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Under the direction of gifted Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, Natalie Portman creates a dazzling cinematic portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

On Nov. 22, 1963, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, terrified Jackie was at his side in the Dallas motorcade.  Shortly afterward, interviewed by an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup), she not only reveals her intimate version of what happened but also cleverly crafts the catchy “Camelot” concept of her husband’s brief tenure.

“Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief shining moment, there was Camelot,” she quotes from JFK’s favorite Broadway musical, reviving the legend of King Arthur.

There are flashbacks to the former First Lady narrating a CBS-TV tour of the White House, pointing out her refurbishments, proudly pronouncing that none were paid for by taxpayers’ money. And much is made of how grieving Jackie micro-managed JFK’s funeral procession for maximum historical impact, patterning it after Abraham Lincoln’s.

“I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real,” she observes.

A secretive chain-smoker, self-conscious Jackie exhibited steely determination and sophisticated discretion, particularly when it came to her husband’s infidelities. So little is made of that, except for Jackie’s rueful observation, “Nothing’s ever mine to keep…”

Nor is there any mention of her subsequent re-marriage to Greek shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis.

Superbly constructed by screenwriter Noah Oppenheim as an unsentimental character study, what’s most memorable is Natalie Portman’s authentic portrayal, a far cry from her Academy Award-winning ballerina in “Black Swan” (2010).

Replicating Jackie’s posture, walk and whispery voice, Portman’s stunning impersonation crosses the threshold of credibility, aided in no small measure by the bouffant hair style, glossy eye makeup and chic, meticulously reproduced wardrobe.

Pablo Larrain’s superb supporting cast includes Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s friend/aide Nancy Tuckerman, John Hurt as her Irish Catholic priest and Max Casella as LBJ’s loyalist Jack Valenti.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jackie” is a solemn, mesmerizing 7, propelling Portman into serious Oscar contention.

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