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“Just Getting Started”

Susan Granger’s review of “Just Getting Started” (Broad Green Pictures)

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The problem with the senior-centric “Just Getting Started” is that it never really gets going!

Although septuagenarian writer/director Ron Shelton has churned out hits like “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup,” he stalled out with this tepid, wannabe Christmas comedy.

It begins as a Mob wife (Jane Seymour), under house arrest, spots a familiar face (Morgan Freeman) on a TV ad for Villa Capri, a luxury Palm Springs retirement resort. Seeking revenge, she dispatches her son to bump him off. Apparently, he was an F.B.I. informant who assumed the identity of ‘Duke Driver’ in the ‘witness protection’ program.

As the Villa Capri’s charming manager, roguish Driver rules the roost, surrounded by hens (Glenne Headly, Elizabeth Ashley, Sheryl Lee Ralph) who are eager to share his nest when he’s not poker partying with his pals (Joe Pantoliano, comedian George Wallace).

Shenanigans commence when prickly newcomer Leo McKay (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives, challenging Driver’s supremacy on all fronts, while flirting with Suzie (Rene Russo), who was dispatched from corporate headquarters to audit the books and fire Driver.

As a native of Los Angeles, I relished Driver’s equanimity regarding warm weather at Christmas: “Well, Bethlehem is exactly the same latitude as Southern California, so probably the original Christmas was more like Palm Springs.” Which is actually true. Song-writer Irving Berlin and greeting card marketers are the ones who created snowy scenes for Christmas.

Garrulous Morgan Freeman and taciturn Tommy Lee Jones, who has a dry sense of humor, had never worked together before, and their chemistry clicks. Too bad they didn’t have better material.

FYI: Although there are some Palm Springs background shots, filming took place at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, New Mexico – for tax reasons. And before taking lessons for this movie, Tommy Lee Jones had never played golf, noting: “I can hit the ball a long way, but I don’t always know where it’s going to come down.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Just Getting Started” is an unfunny 5. It’s seasonal sludge.

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“Coco”

Susan Granger’s review of “Coco” (Disney/Pixar)

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Pixar Animation is known as “family-friendly” – and none more than their 19th feature, a fantasy that faithfully depicts Mexican culture, celebrates the Hispanic customs and folklore of Dia de los Muertos, and acknowledges cultural icons like Frida Kahlo and El Santo.

In the tiny Mexican town of Santa Cecilia, the Rivera family has been making shoes for several generations, and 12 year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzales) is expected to continue the family tradition.

Years ago, as the story goes, Miguel’s great-great grandfather, a musician, deserted the family, leaving his beloved great-great grandmother Coco to raise their family alone. Ever since, the Riveras have had an aversion to music.

Problem is: Miguel loves music and has taught himself to play the guitar, studying the work of a local singing legend, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

On the national holiday known as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which joyously honors the memory of one’s ancestors, Miguel is determined to perform at the fiesta’s annual talent show in the mariachi plaza.

When his abuelita (grandmother) smashes his guitar, rebellious Miguel sneaks into Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum and steals his idol’s prized instrument, unleashing a curse that catapults him to the Land of the Dead, where he must seek a family member’s blessing in order to return home.

The Land of the Dead is a brightly-colored netherworld of whimsically clattering skeletons, luminescent winged spirits, sparkling marigold petals, and long-buried family secrets. That’s where Miguel meets forlorn Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who claims to have known Ernesto de la Cruz, whom Miguel now believes was his great-great grandfather.

Co-directed by Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and Mexican-American Adrian Molina, it delivers both dazzling visuals and an emotional catharsis, utilizing an all-Latino vocal cast that includes Mexican stars Alfonso Arau and Selene Luna.

And the song “Remember Me” by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (“Frozen”) still reverberates.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Coco” is a poignant 8, strumming the heartstrings. Eso!

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“Wonder Wheel”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wonder Wheel” (Amazon Studios)

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Woody Allen’s new film returns to the signature giant blue Ferris wheel that looms over Coney Island’s amusement park, recalling his youth, back in the 1950s.

Morose, melancholy, migraine headache-plagued Ginny (Kate Winslet), a former actress, works as a waitress at Ruby’s Clam House. Approaching her 40th birthday, she unhappily married to oafish, volatile carousel-operator Humpty (Jim Belushi), whose long-estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) suddenly shows up on their doorstep.

Fleeing from her gangster husband and his crime-syndicate cohorts after squealing to the F.B.I., penniless, on-the-lam Carolina has nowhere else to go. “I know where all the bodies are buried,” she explains.

And none of this sits well with Ginny’s preteen pyromaniac son, Richie (Jack Gore), from her first marriage to the jazz drummer whom she recklessly betrayed.

Not surprisingly, having her nubile 26 year-old stepdaughter around interferes with Ginny’s adulterous affair with seductive Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), the local lifeguard who commutes from his pad in Greenwich Village and dreams of becoming a major playwright, like Eugene O’Neill.

Too bad that Timberlake hasn’t developed the acting chops to tackle this kind of complicated, multi-layered role, serving – as many others have – as Allen’s talking-into-the-camera alter-ego.

What Allen excels at is capturing Brooklyn’s orange-hued Coney Island atmosphere, sharing credit with cinematographer Vittorio Stonaro and production designer Santo Loquasto, who use innovative lighting and camera angles to resurrect the bustling boardwalk of years past.

And Allen subtly scores by casting “Sopranos” veterans Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa as the menacing goons on Carolina’s tail.

FYI: The cast and crew moved to Staten Island to film scenes that take supposedly place under the boardwalk since that space no longer exists; it was filled with sand after Hurricane Sandy.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wonder Wheel” is a simmering, yet stilted 6, filled with bittersweet nostalgia and a terrific soundtrack.

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“Mudbound”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mudbound” (Netflix)

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In this timeless and timely epic melodrama, two families – one black and one white – bound together by the desolate Mississippi Delta farmland, reflect Jim Crow racism in the 1940s American South.

The Jacksons are a close-knit African-American family of poor, sharecropping tenants, living next to Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Henry (Jason Clarke) McAllan,  the ambitious, yet incompetent new land owners who just moved from Memphis, Tennessee, with their two young daughters and Henry’s vile, ornery Pappy (Jonathan Banks).

Unprepared for the squalor and primitive harshness of rural life, along with the incessant rainfall, the McAllans are struggling to survive, something they can only do with the help of Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Hap (Rob Morgan) Jackson.

As stoic Florence says when she’s summoned from caring for her injured husband to tend Laura’s sick children: “Love is a kind of survival.”

The plot pivots on the uneasy friendship forged between Florence’s eldest son and Laura’s roguish brother-in-law, both W.W.II combat veterans. While fighting in Europe under Gen. Patton, Sgt. Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) experienced freedom and respect for the first time, falling in love with a Caucasian woman, while Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), a fighter pilot, drowns his PTSD in whiskey.

Their natural camaraderie breaks the rules about racial separation, which infuriates Henry’s sinister, virulently prejudiced Pappy.

Based on Hillary Jordan’s somewhat autobiographical 2008 best-seller, it’s adapted by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees, utilizing a parallel subplot structure that alternates among six points-of-view on race and class, augmented by Rachel Morrison’s sublime cinematography and Tamar-kali’s effective musical score.

Insofar as ‘white privilege’ is concerned, Dee Rees notes, “Unless you investigate what you inherit in terms of ideas, attitudes and thoughts about the world, how can you be mindful about what you’re passing on?”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mudbound” is an unflinching, admirable 8, particularly relevant now that white supremacy is back in the forefront of public consciousness.

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“The Disaster Artist”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Disaster Artist” (A24)

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It’s rare that making a truly terrible movie gets celebrated, let alone re-made into a major release. But that’s the case with Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” (2003), related by director/actor James Franco.

Based on a 2013 memoir (“The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”) by Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, it chronicles how Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero met after a San Francisco acting class in 1998.

Blandly handsome Greg (Dave Franco, a.k.a. James’ younger brother) so admires the deranged exhibitionism of weird Wiseau (James Franco) that he suggests they do a scene together. That leads to a friendship/partnership, as they move to Los Angeles, determined to become movie stars.

After suffering inevitable rejection within the film industry, delusionary Wiseau writes an incoherent screenplay for them both and funds it himself, spending $6 million on this ludicrous vanity project.

When they visit a movie-equipment supplier, who inquires whether Wiseau wants to shoot on 35-mm film or high-definition video, he opts for both, insisting on buying the equipment rather than renting it. Realizing megalomaniacal Wiseau’s guileless ineptitude, the supplier then offers to add in the use of their own studio and professional crew.

James Franco actually recreates about 20 minutes of absurd awfulness of “The Room” as part of this movie-within-a-movie.

Told from Greg’s naïve perspective, the anecdotal story never delves into egocentric Wiseau’s mysterious past, including his garbled, vaguely Eastern European accent. And the source of his seemingly unlimited funding is never revealed, which adds to the concept’s inherent superficiality and triviality.

For celebrity spotters, there are cameos by Judd Apatow, Kristen Bell, Alison Brie, Bryan Cranston, Zac Efron, Ari Graynor, Melanie Griffith, Josh Hutcherson, Seth Rogen, Adam Scott, and Jacki Weaver.

According to IMDB.com, Wiseau was born in Poland in 1955 and his income derived from leather and real-estate businesses. Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau have a new film, “Best F(r)iends,” set for release in 2018.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Disaster Artist” is a slick, yet schlocky 6, a muddled misadventure.

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“Darkest Hour”

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

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Following Christopher Nolan’s epic “Dunkirk,” Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” further illuminates that massive evacuation in 1940, utilizing a dazzling performance by Gary Oldman as that plummy wordsmith, Winston Churchill. Actually, the films are complementary.

Within days of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill was faced with the choice of negotiating a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler, whom he considers a madman, or standing firm, engaging his nation in World War II to fight for freedom from tyranny.

As Nazi Germany’s troops rolled across Western Europe, invading France, encircling and pushing 400,000 Allied troops into the sea at Dunkirk, Churchill found himself coping not only with his own cabinet and the pacifist Parliament plotting against him but also skeptical King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn).

When the King asks, “How do you manage drinking during the day?” Churchill curtly replies, “Practice.”

Supported by his devoted wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), yet wracked by depression and self-doubt over the defeat at Gallipoli, Churchill duly considers appeasement but, ultimately, defies former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and does what he thinks is right.

“How many more dictators must be appeased before we learn? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”

Scripted by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), it’s inventively directed by Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina”), who previously staged the Dunkirk scenes in “Atonement” (2007).

Admittedly, the simplistic yet superbly structured scene of Churchill going out to “meet the working people” in London’s Underground is fictionalized. Added for dramatic purposes, it’s remarkably effective.

Although veteran actor Gary Oldman has only been nominated once, for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” he will probably walk off with the Academy Award as Best Actor. Propelled by incredible, almost manic, energy, both mental and physical – augmented by jowly makeup and padding – he transforms himself into the pugnacious 20th century icon.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Darkest Hour” is a suitably stylish 7, emerging as a career-defining Oscar-vehicle for Gary Oldman.

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“Believe in Magic: Jason Bishop”

Susan Granger’s review of “Believe in Magic: Jason Bishop” (New Victory Theater)

Looking for enchantment? Jason Bishop delivers an astonishing introduction to magic – and while his show perfect for children – with booster seats distributed by ushers – adults will also be enthralled.

Back by popular demand after a sold-out run last year, this internationally touring magician immediately develops a firm connection with his audience, engaging eager young volunteers, handling them with gentle professionality.

Bishop’s illusions include swords and levitations, most involving his graceful assistant, Kim Hess. At the beginning of the show, Kim gamely climbs into one of Bishop’s many ‘boxes’ and, seemingly, evades piercing by sabers. Later, she twirls glowing batons and, eventually, levitates, along with Bishop.

During a brief interlude of cards and coin tricks (viewed on a large screen via Go-Pro video), Bishop confides that he was raised by foster families in rural Pennsylvania. He taught himself magic from books in the public library, quickly becoming the youngest person ever to win the Magician’s Alliance of Eastern States Stage Award.

After the intermission, Bishop briefly interacts with the audience in the mezzanine and introduces his adorable Yorkshire terrier, named Gizmo, wearing a red holiday sweater. Amazingly, Gizmo appears and disappears as Bishop teleports him from place to place.

There’s an intriguing, interactive game, devised with a program insert showing holiday icons, including Santa, a Dreidel, a Menorah, a gingerbread man, and a Kinara.

Shrieks of delight continue as a mass of shredded wet paper causes snow to fall on the audience, and Bishop – with the help of a hefty security guard – manages to make a million dollars disappear into thin air– poof! –before those $100 ‘bills’ (augmented by photos of Gizmo) descend from the ceiling.

Kudos to illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer, technical director Ellen Schmoyer, and lighting designers Herrick Goldman and Susan Nicholson.

For wondrous, family-friendly entertainment during this holiday season, catch Jason Bishop at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street – through December 30th. For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.newvictory.org.

“Derren Brown: Secret”

Susan Granger’s review of “Derren Brown: Secret” (Atlantic Theater Co./Linda Gross Theater)

 

For several months, British magician Derren Brown, who sells out 1,700-seat Palace Theater in London’s West End and has been awarded two Olivier Awards and one BAFTA (the British equivalent of an Oscar), has been performing, at the 200-seat Linda Gross Theater, part of Manhattan’s Atlantic Theater Company.

Brown’s particular brand of magic is called mentalism, or mind-reading, and his shows are centered on the audience, not on him. What he creates are illusions and he throws Frisbees into the audience to choose volunteers.

Derren Brown doesn’t want any information regarding the specifics of his show to be shared, which makes ‘reviewing’ daunting. But good critics never reveal ‘whodunit’ or the twist at the end of the movie, right?

Having said that, Brown’s show begins with a series of questions whose answers are determined by subtle physical cues. And he doesn’t always get them all right, which only serves to up his ‘likeability’ quotient.

“We are all trapped inside our own minds,” Brown tells the audience, adding that the stories we tell ourselves are precisely what limit our perceptions. These tales, which impose logic on confusion, serve to simplify the complexities of real life.

“It’s all fiction,” he concludes.

The one ‘secret’ Brown, a former Roman Catholic schoolboy, does reveal is that he’s gay, an admission which sets the tone for a climate of confessions from members of the audience.

Brown shares writing credit with Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor, his co-directors, who indulge in subtle details. Like: listen carefully to the choice of songs that play before the show and during intermission; the music eventually becomes relevant.

Obviously, Derren Brown’s future is headed for Broadway, so catch him now – while you still can.

“I, Tonya”

Susan Granger’s review of “I, Tonya” (Neon)

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Unless you find parental and domestic abuse amusing, the Coming Attractions are deceiving. This is NOT a comedy – in any sense of the word.

Craig Gillespie’s glibly fictionalized, bizarre biopic begins with…”Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.”

To refresh your memory: back in 1994, figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped by thugs, so that rival Tonya Harding could have a better chance at winning in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Scripted by Steven Rogers, Tonya’s story is told from several perspectives. There’s Tonya herself (Margot Robbie), her sadistic mother (Allison Janney), and her stupid ex-husband (Sebastian Stan).

As a three year-old in Portland, Oregon, Tonya was a remarkable ice-skater. Her remarkable strength and athletic ability was exploited by the relentless bullying of her hyper-critical mother.

Caricatured as “trashy Tonya,” her lack of refinement and working-class background were reflected in her costumes, hairstyle, choice of music and aggressive style. Yet, to the surprise of the skating world, Tonya became the first American woman to complete the triple axel in competition.

“Used to getting her ass kicked,” Tonya was attracted to an obnoxious suitor, Jeff Gillhooly, whose best pal was scheming, delusional Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).

Although Tonya steadfastly maintains she had no part in the moronic kneecapping plan, she was subsequently found guilty and banned from competitive skating for the rest of her life.

While Margot Robbie delivers a remarkably dark performance, she refused to meet Tonya Harding before playing her, telling “Variety,” “I knew that if I met her and liked her, I would never play the character properly. I would be sugar-coating her flaws. I would be trying to justify the bad things she might say or do in a situation. I didn’t want to do that because I’m a people-pleaser, and I know it.”

And captivating Allison Janney might bring home Oscar gold as the acid-tongued, LEAST supportive mother-of-the-year.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “I, Tonya” is a flawed 5, just like its ferocious heroine.

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“Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Susan Granger’s review of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (Sony/Columbia Pictures)

Roman J Israel, Esq. (2017)

Roman J Israel, Esq. (2017)

Sublimely talented Denzel Washington deserves better than writer/director Dan Gilroy’s tepid, convoluted thriller in which he plays the titular role, an idealistic legal-savant whose nerdy, antisocial personality places him in the Asperger range on the autism spectrum.

When his beloved, long-time partner has a ruinous heart attack, Israel realizes he can’t run the downtown Los Angeles criminal law practice alone, particularly since it’s devoted to social justice, defending the poor and downtrodden on a pro-bono basis.

After he’s turned down for a salaried position at a civil-rights project headed by Maya Alston (Carmen Ajogo), Israel takes a job a mega-firm headed by slick, high-powered George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – with whom he seems to have little in common. And then he’s faced with a crisis of conscience.

After memorizing the entire California legal code, Israel has devoted years to assembling a class-action lawsuit to challenge the pervasive system of plea bargaining, dubbing it a rigged game in which prosecutors threaten defendants with hefty prison sentences, hoping to get them to plead ‘guilty,’ even if they’re innocent, thus short-circuiting the legal process.

“Each of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he maintains. So incarcerating young people for a long time almost guarantees that the worst thing they’ve ever done will define the rest of their lives.

Designed as a follow-up to his melodramatic “Nightcrawler,” which eviscerated the parasitic tabloid media culture, Dan Gilroy continues his cynical, character-driven concept. Roman J. Israel is a relic from the social-activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And corruption, once again, is the culprit.

Denzel Washington is almost unrecognizable with a shapeless, three-inch high Afro, aviator glasses and frumpy, mismatched outfits, yet his vocal eloquence is unmistakable. An anachronism in urban Los Angeles, he doesn’t own or drive a car. Instead, he walks, wearing headphones, lugging a huge leather briefcase.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a contrived, unfocused 5 – with a twisty, frustrating finale.

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