"
"

“Time and the Conways”

Susan Granger’s review of “Time and the Conways” (Roundabout/American Airlines Theater)

 

Although Elizabeth McGovern spent the last six years playing the gracious American heiress, Lady Cora, Countess of Grantham, on the BBC’s “Downtown Abbey,” she slips artfully into the role of the arrogant, affluent, egocentric widow in J.B. Priestley’s dramedy about wealth, class and the illusion of linear time.

Set in Yorkshire in 1919, the play opens like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, as Mrs. Conway’s ebullient daughters chatter like chirping canaries in affected British accents. It’s Kay’s 21st birthday, which means donning costumes, playing charades and gossiping about the guests assembled in the adjoining room.

There’s aspiring novelist Kay (Charlotte Parry), sweetly optimistic Carol (Anna Baryshnikov), ardent Socialist Madge (Brooke Bloom), and flighty, flirtatious Hazel (Anna Camp), plus underachieving Alan (Gabriel Ebert) and dashing soldier Robin (Matthew James Thomas), home from the Great War.

Then 19 years pass – and it’s 1937.  The disillusioned Conway family faces a difficult dilemma, namely Mrs. Conway’s loss of income. In addition, Carol has died, along with many of their hopes and dreams.

Sensitive Kay is working for a London newspaper, embittered Madge has become a schoolmarm, and embittered Hazel is unhappily married to a social-climbing bully (Steven Boyer). While Alan slyly remains humble, Robin has become a drunken reprobate who cannot support his wife and children.

Then, it’s 1919 again. The Conways’ youthful exuberance is restored, but now the perspective is different, as one can see how the insidious seeds of the Conways’ psychological demise were planted.

Impressively transitioning from the BBC to Broadway, 56 year-old Elizabeth McGovern adroitly moves from being a warm, nurturing mother to a carping matriarch who ruins the lives of all six of her children by projecting her ambitions onto each of them, rather than accepting them for who they are.

Despite the inconsistent direction of Tony Award-winning Rebecca Taichman (“Indecent”), this insightful, time-jumping play has a fine ensemble that includes Alfred Narciso and Cara Ricketts. Credit Neil Patel’s dual sets for achieving continuity, along with Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, Matt Hubbs’ evocative sound and Paloma Young’s idiosyncratic costumes.

FYI: If the name sounds familiar, yes, Anna Baryshnikov is dancer Mikhail’s daughter.

Under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company, “Time and the Conways” is playing a limited engagement through Nov. 26 at the American Airlines Theatre.

“Curvy Widow”

Susan Granger’s review of “Curvy Widow” (Westside Theatre/Upstairs)

 

Since – many years ago – I, too, was a curvy widow, I could relate to this bereavement dilemma.

When – after a 23- year marriage – Bobby (Nancy Opel) loses her husband, Oscar-winning screenwriter/playwright/novelist James Goldman (Ken Land), who wrote “The Lion in Winter” and “Follies,” she faces the all-to-familiar quandary for middle-aged women: how to find male companionship.

Following the advice of her husband’s therapist, she adopts the moniker ‘Curvy Woman’ to meet men in chat rooms and on dating sites like Match.com. When that doesn’t work out, she turns to a website for married men who just want sex. But that still leaves her alone on holidays – and embarrassed to buy condoms at Rite-Aid.

As “a world-class chef, interior designer, contractor and boxer,” affluent Bobby’s got a lot to offer. And she’s comforted throughout these adventures by her three loyal women friends (Andrea Bianchi, Elizabeth Ward Land, Aisha de Haas) who live vicariously through her.

After kissing a lot of frogs, Bobby meets a “Prince Charming,” but then she begins to question her own motives. Moving from her uptown Manhattan apartment to a downtown loft, Bobby is fearlessly honest.

Following her perambulations is an ever-present guilt, embodied in the dressing gown-clad ghost of her late husband, who hasn’t lost any of his earthly possessiveness. How different her reactions might have been if he, like my late husband, selflessly encouraged her to move on with her life. But that’s another story.

Autobiographically written as a one-act musical comedy by Ms. Goldman, whose husband died at age 71 in 1998, the non-linear book is funny, witty and clever, punctuated by Drew Brody’s somewhat generic songs, simplistically `directed by Peter Flynn and choreographed by Marcos Santana on Rob Bissinger’s chic set. Costumer Brian Hemeseth augments Nancy Opel’s basic black with colorful jackets, displayed on the set’s capacious closet.

Energetic Tony Award-nominee Ms. Opel (“Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Urinetown: The Toxic Avenger”) is supported by Ken Land, Alan Muraoka and Christopher Shyer, playing the various male roles.

Running 90 minutes without an intermission, “Curvy Widow” plays through December 31 on 43rd Street at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs – and a Thursday matinee has been recently added.

 

“Faces Places”

Susan Granger’s review of “Faces Places” or “Visages Villages” (Cohen Media Group)

faces

French New Wave pioneer Agnes Varda, who made her first film in 1954, is now 89 years old – and as warm and vital as ever, even if her eyesight is fading.

Working with acclaimed 34 year-old French photographer/muralist JR, she shares her lifelong passion for images and how they are created, displayed and shared in this personalized, pastoral documentary.

Together, they travel around France’s villages, farms, factories and beaches in JR’s van, which doubles as a giant-photo booth and is painted to look like a giant camera, encountering ordinary, working-class citizens, learning their stories and crafting oversized portraits of them.

These enormous artistic works are then exhibited on houses, barns, storefronts and trains, documenting the humanity in their subjects – and themselves – along with a unique glimpse of contemporary life.

“Chance has always been my best asset,” Varda claims, referring to her life and her cinema.

As an acknowledgement of women, they photograph dockworkers’ wives in the port city of Le Havre. “It’s good to see a woman standing tall,” Vardas says, as these large-scale, black-and-white pictures are plastered against a massive tower of shipping crates.

They’re ‘odd couple’ vagabonds in the very best sense of the word: short, stocky Agnes Varda with her assortment of colorful sweaters and long, lanky JR with his pork-pie hat and hipster sunglasses.

In both an act of defiance and admission of age, they reenact the exhilarating running-through-the-Louvre scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” with JR pushing Varda, ensconced in a wheelchair.

As a touching gift, JR pastes a photo of Varda’s late photographer friend Guy Bourdin onto the side of a collapsed Nazi-era bunker on a Normandy beach, only to realize that a short time later, the tides will wash this commemorative away. It’s a precious, melancholy moment, coupled with the realization that people are forever destined to fade.

And in a poignant, concluding tribute, JR finally takes off his sunglasses.

In French with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Faces Places” is an unforgettable, irresistible 8, a restorative road trip.

08

“Marshall”

Susan Granger’s review of “Marshall” (Open Road Films/Starlight Media)

Marshall movie

Conceived by 74 year-old Westport attorney Michael Koskoff and his screenwriter son Jacob, this courtroom drama, set in Fairfield County, focuses on a rape case in 1941, when Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a crusading civil rights lawyer for the NAACP.

After a Greenwich socialite, Mrs. Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), accuses her African-American chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of raping her and pushing her off a bridge, he’s arrested, and frightened white people across the country began firing their domestic workers.

At age 32, Thurgood Marshall already had a formidable reputation, traveling around the South defending African-Americans in redneck towns, and he’d already argued before the Supreme Court.

Arriving in Bridgeport, Marshall quickly realizes that Spell’s ‘confession’ was coerced. And it’s obvious that Judge Colin Foster (James Cromwell) sides with prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), ruling that, although Marshall may sit at the defense table as co-counsel, he can’t speak in the courtroom because he’s from out-of-state.

Instead, Spell’s defense is articulated by Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), a reluctant insurance attorney with no experience in criminal law. As the case proceeds, these two young lawyers – a black and a Jew – bond, enduring a huge amount of racism and antisemitism.

Like most docudramas, what really happened is visualized in accordance with conflicting testimonies.

Conventionally directed by Reginald Hudlin, it struggles to keep a consistent tone, particularly when Marshall visits Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse, hanging out with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

But Hudlin elicits strong performances from Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad.

Not long after, Thurgood Marshall won the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which desegregated public schools; in 1967, he became the Supreme Court’s first African-American judge.

FYI: Because of Connecticut’s moratorium on filmmaking tax credits, it was not filmed locally. And actress Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman, plays a bit part as a Mississippi mother.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Marshall” is a historically significant 6, a biopic filled with cultural resonance.

06

“Professor Marston & the Wonder Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” (Annapurna/Sony)

Professor-Marston-and-the-Wonder-Women

This is, undoubtedly, the most kinky, provocative comic-book superhero ‘origin’ story – and it’s true!

It begins with a public burning of “Wonder Woman” comics and the stern interrogation of Harvard psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) by Josette Frank (Connie Britton) of the Child Study Association of America, who grills him about his subversive obsession with bondage, which Marston maintains symbolizes his motivational theory.

Flash back to when Marston and his even-more-erudite wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), were fascinated by human behavior, specifically the manipulative dynamics of his DISC theory (dominance-inducement-submission-compliance).

“Are you normal? What is normal?” Marston quizzes Radcliffe undergrads, noting, “Men’s minds are far too limited, That’s why we need women!”

While testing their new invention (a.k.a. the lie detector), they become besotted by a student, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the daughter of suffragette Ethel Byrne and niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Open-minded Olive hides the Marstons in her sorority so they can observe ritualized hazing.

When Olive moves in, she enjoys sexual relations with both Marstons, which, not surprisingly, leads their expulsion from Harvard. After moving to Rye, New York, their daring threesome continues, as both women bear William’s children while continuing their penchant for costumed S&M role-playing.

In the 1940s, William starts writing stories, incorporating his psychological theories into the composite character of Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, a liberated role model with radical sexual subtext that intrigues comic book publisher E. C. Gaines (Oliver Platt).

Obsessed with the inherent eroticism, Angela Robinson directs from her own heavy-handed script, eliciting surprisingly memorable performances from the trifecta, particularly multi-faceted Rebecca Hall – and the timing is perfect since “Wonder Woman” is the pop culture hit of 2017.

If you want to know more, read Jill Lapore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” and David Hadju’s “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” is an intriguing, unconventional 8, propelled by the feminist superpower.

08

“The Mountain Between Us”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Mountain Between Us” (Fox 2000: 20th Century-Fox)

the-mountain-between-us-og

Despite Idris Elba’s charismatic presence, this melodramatic survival story struggles to achieve a steady pace and tone, as the characters played by Elba and Kate Winslet fight to remain alive in the wilderness.

When their paths cross in the airport after their flight to Denver is cancelled because of an impending storm, Alex Martin (Winslet) and Ben Bass (Elba) are desperate. She’s a photojournalist, frantic to get home for her scheduled wedding, while he’s a British neurosurgeon, determined not to miss urgent surgery on an ailing child.

Impulsive Alex suggests chartering a small plane and cautious Ben, somewhat hesitantly, agrees. But soon after they’re airborne, the folksy pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) suffers a fatal stroke and the plane smashes into a snowy ridge in the High Uintas Wilderness, part of the Rockies in northern Utah.

Since no one ever filed a flight plan, they’re left to their own devices, along with Walter’s (unnamed) golden Labrador. Alex’s leg is obviously broken, but Ben sets it so adroitly that she’s able to hobble with an improvised cane.

Realizing there’s no cell phone service, few supplies and subzero temperatures, Alex recites the Rule of Three: “People can survive three days without water, three hours without shelter and three minutes without air.”

Which leads to the crucial question: Should they stay within the confines of the shattered plane, trusting to be spotted by a search party, or trek down the slippery slopes with their canine companion, hoping to find help?

Adapted by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe from Charles Martin’s 2010 romance-novel, it’s helmed at a leisurely pace by Dutch/Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Omar”), leaving plenty of time for Alex and Ben to bicker and bond, igniting an utterly predictable romance, while cinematographer Mandy Walker supplies breathtaking, vertiginous vistas, shot in British Columbia

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Mountain Between Us” is a slogging 6 – with a sappy ending.

06

“Blade Runner 2049″

Susan Granger’s review of “Blade Runner 2049” (Warner Bros./Sony)

blade

Although it cost $150+ million and brings back Harrison Ford (albeit not until too late), French/Canadian director Denis Villenueve’s gamble to revive “Blade Runner” hasn’t paid off.

First, it’s relevant that Ridley Scott’s 1982’s legendary neo-noir thriller wasn’t a big box-office success. Second, it’s now 35 years later, and many hardcore sci-fi fans who were dazzled by the original aren’t around anymore.

Set three decades into the future, the ominously bleak, dystopian Los Angeles cityscape with its constant rain and neon-lit grime is stunning.

After an upgraded Nexus 9 replicant LAPD Officer “K” (Ryan Gosling) hunts down and kills an outdated Nexus 8, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he stumbles across a secret that his steely supervisor, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) fears will destroy the delicate balance between replicants and humans.

It seems that a previous generation of replicants were able to reproduce – and there’s a child out there to prove it: the offspring of the android Rachael (Sean Young) and Det. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Creepy robot-manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) with his replicant Luv (Sally Hoecks) are determined to discover how the Tyrell Corporation (from the first film) made its androids capable of procreation, so he can use that technology to increase replicant production.

In the interim, “K” has embedded memories, which give him and others of his kind, the illusion of human experience yet keeping them subservient. While enduring his own existential crisis, K has a compliant AI companion, a hologram aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), whom he thinks he “loves.”

Which poses the essential question: “Do machines have feelings?”

Riffing on Philip K. Dick’s characters from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” co-screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green support Denis Villenueve’s (“Arrival”) vision which consistently emphasizes the gritty style/production design over the slow-paced story.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Blade Runner 2049” is a visually striking, surreal 6, perhaps earning cinematographer Roger A. Deakins his 14th Oscar nomination and first Academy Award.

06

“Flatliners”

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

flat

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)

 victoria

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.

07

“American Made”

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

american-made-imax-landscape-1

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.

08