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“Viceroy’s House”

Susan Granger’s review of “Viceroy’s House” (IFC Films)

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Having entranced audiences with “Bend It Like Beckham, “British-raised filmmaker Gurinder Chadha goes back to her family’s roots with this splendid historical drama.

Set in India during the chaotic weeks leading up to the 1947 Partition, it begins with the words: “History is written by the victors.”

Having served as Viceroy of Burma until its independence, patrician Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his compassionate wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) are dispatched by King George VI to diplomatically conclude England’s 300-year colonial rule and hand over power to India’s new leaders.

Which is easier said than done because Mountbatten must decide whether to accede to the wishes of Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Jawaharal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) to set up a pluralistic nation with a Hindu majority, or listen to the pleas of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzuil Smith) to partition India into two countries, establishing a Muslim-majority Pakistan.

“Division doesn’t create peace,” warns Gandhi. “It creates havoc.”

During this tumult, an ardent young Hindu, Jeet (Manish Dayal) arrives in Dehli to train as Mountbatten’s valet. He is smitten with Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a dutiful member of the Viceroy’s household staff, who is promised to a Muslim man chosen by her father (Om Puri).

Their illicit romantic conflict serves as a microcosm of the far larger struggle, resulting in the violent carnage and suffering that inevitably followed the sectarian displacement of more than 10 million people. It was the largest human migration in history, as Muslims trekked to Pakistan, displacing Hindus and Sikhs, who went to settle within India’s newly drawn borders.

Based on “The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition” by Narendra Singh Sarila, it’s been adapted by Chadha with co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini, who utilize a familiar “Upstairs, Downstairs” formula, amplified by Ben Smithard’s visuals and A. H. Rahman’s score.

FYI: What Chadha leaves out is Edwina Mountbatten’s well-publicized affair with Nehru.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Viceroy’s House” is a personally poignant 7, revealing a cultural legacy that still reverberates today.

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“American Assassin”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Assassin” (Lionsgate/CBS Films)

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Derivative but diverting, this timely political thriller centers on covert U.S. operatives zeroing in on terrorist factions and renegade mercenaries.

It begins on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his blonde, bikini-clad girl-friend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega). She accepts, but their idyllic vacation ends in a bloodbath when Katrina is killed, along with other beach-goers, by Uzi-toting Muslim terrorists from a Libyan group under Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmad).

Determined to avenge Katrina’s murder by infiltrating Al-Mansur’s Tripoli-based cell, traumatized Rapp quits his graduate studies to buff up and learn marksmanship, martial arts and Arabic, which attracts attention from U.S. intelligence.

Although the CIA director (David Suchet) has his doubts about channeling Rapp’s unbridled thirst for revenge, the counterintelligence chief (Sanaa Lathan) views him as an ideal assassin because “He’s testing through the roof!”

So Rapp is sent off to be trained by grizzled, ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) at a no-nonsense boot camp in Virginia, where he goads his pupils to “kill me.”

When Rapp goes into the field to track down stolen weapons-grade plutonium, he’s accompanied by another trainee, Victor (Scott Adkins), and a Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar), eventually facing a former American agent-turned-rogue mercenary (Taylor Kitsch) dubbed Ghost, who is brokering the plutonium-239 deal in Poland.

Based on a series of pulp novels by the late Vince Flynn, it’s adapted by – count ‘em – four different screenwriters, including Stephen Schiff (TV’s “The Americans”), and directed by Michael Cuesta (“Kill the Messenger”).

The cliché-riddled result is completely predictable, including a climactic showdown at sea, involving a speedboat, helicopter and the U.S. fleet.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Assassin” is a flat, formulaic 5, despite its fast-moving action sequences.

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“mother!”

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

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If you needed proof of the adage “Love is blind,” look no further than Jennifer Lawrence starring in her boyfriend Darren Aronofsky’s macabre horror/melodrama that’s tinged with increasingly hysterical, pseudo-religious overtones.

Writer/director Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) blends “Rosemary’s Baby” with “Requiem for a Dream,” making the cynical assertion that – for the artist – creative inspiration is more important than love or life itself.

Opening with the image of a huge Victorian country house burning, along with its female inhabitant (Lawrence), it relates the tortured tale of a nameless, archetypal couple (Lawrence, Javier Bardem).

He’s a famous, self-absorbed poet who craves adoration and idolatry. Serving as his self-sacrificing “inspiration,” she’s renovated and restored his idyllic old house, which burned down before they met. Like a radiant Earth Mother, she’s determined to “make a paradise” for him, even while self-medicating.

One evening, a mysterious stranger (Ed Harris) knocks at their door, explaining that he thought this was a B&B and he needs a room for the night. Rather than turn him away, the poet invites him to stay, much to the dismay of his timid, subservient, much younger wife.

It turns out their coughing, chain-smoking visitor is a doctor who is soon joined by his arrogant, predatory wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and, later, by their two bickering sons (Domhnall & Brian Gleeson), one of whom kills the other.

Then an unwelcome horde of other parasitic intruders arrive, along with relentless violence and increasing destruction.

“Who are these people?” she inquires – with increasing panic. (Aronofsky positions almost every shot either as a close-up on Lawrence’s face, over her shoulder or from her point-of-view.)

Cryptic Biblical allusions abound as subtext in this abstract, metaphysical allegory with cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s flamboyantly bizarre visuals evoking the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and other intense, apocalyptic visions.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “mother!” is a grim, grotesque 2, turning into another instance of pretentious, self-indulgent torture-porn.

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“The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Mathias”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias” (The Duke on 42nd Street/Off-Broadway)

 

According to Roman mythology, the Rape of the Sabine Women refers to a time when the men of ancient Rome committed a mass abduction of young women from surrounding areas during the festival of Neptune Equester.

During the Renaissance and afterwards, it became a popular subject for painters, particularly Jacques-Louis David’s “The Intervention of the Sabine Women.”

Now, playwright Michael Yates Crowley transforms it into a darkly satirical indictment of American rape culture, revolving around a 15 year-old Springfield high school student, Grace B. Matthias (Susannah Perkins), dressed in a baggy sweater, who recounts her sexual assault to a Lawyer (Jeff Biehl).

Grace’s rapist Jeff (Doug Harris) is a not the star football player on the team known as the Romans. Instead, he’s the shy sidekick of the quarterback Bobby (Alex Breaux), and Grace’s tortured ambivalence is obvious, since she says she’d like to forgive him, just like the Sabine woman ‘forgave’ their captors by marrying them.

But those around her have differing viewpoints. Her callous cheerleader pal Monica (Jeena Yi) urges her to keep quiet, noting “Boys don’t like smart.” A misogynistic newsman (Chas Carey) focuses on the potential damage to the Romans’ season. The guidance counselor (Eva Kaminsky) is emotionally conflicted. And the townsfolk fall back on the classic re-victimizing “Did she asked for it?” scenario.

Sensitively directed by Tyne Rafaeli, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set reveals a high-school gymnasium with lighting by Barbara Samuels, and Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes.

The exciting, innovative concept – with its inherent complications – was inspired by the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, case which involved the rape of an intoxicated teenage girl by two football players.

And it’s particularly timely since President Donald Trump is trying to dismantle the Obama administrations 2011 guidelines that require schools to investigate all complaints of sexual assault.

FYI: In 1954, the short story “The Sobbin Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet, was adapted into a M.G.M. musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which subsequently became a stage musical.

This Playwrights Realm production, which is presented without an intermission, is at The Duke on 42nd Street thru Sept. 23. For tickets, call 212-223-3010 or go to www.dukeon42.org.

“If Only…a Love Story”

Susan Granger’s review of “If Only… a Love Story” (Cherry Lane Theatre/Off-Broadway)

 

Set in 1901, Thomas Klingenstein’s historical drama riffs on the “What If” supposition, pivoting on what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated.

Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) met Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) 36 years earlier, when she was a Manhattan socialite and he was a well-educated former slave.

During the Civil War, young Ann, who was an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, worked as a nurse. When she begged Lincoln for fresh milk for the soldiers, he arranged it. In return, the President asked her to visit Samuel, a wounded Union soldier from the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, known as the ‘first colored Infantry.’

That’s how they met, but it was an era when any sort of romantic relationship between them was unthinkable.

“Mr. Abraham Lincoln was our match-maker,” Samuel recalls, when they see each other again.

What follows is an 80-minute conversation between them, delving not only into how their respective lives might have been different if Lincoln had lived but also how the country might have changed.

Ann’s wealthy businessman husband Henry (Richmond Hoxie) has gone out for the evening, leaving Ann with Sophie (Korinne Tetlow), their adopted six year-old who has been mute since she saw her parents killed by a runaway horse-and-carriage. The play is bookended by Ann reading to Sophie.

Like his previous work, “Douglass,” revolving around the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, playwright Thomas Klingenstein evokes the era of slavery, abolitionists and racial privilege. The characters are fictitious, although Lincoln did have a black valet, William H. Johnson.

Although she’s still best-known for TV’s “Little House on the Prairie,” Melissa Gilbert has done a creditable amount of stage work and knows how to use her voice to manipulate an audience. Complementing her, Mark Kenneth Smaltz has a captivating presence.

But Christopher McElroen’s sedentary staging stultifies, rather than enliven, the conversation between Ann and Samuel. By placing them in armchairs facing each other, McEloen forces the audience to watch them in profile, and it’s not much help when he has them exchange seats.

William Boles’ Victorian parlor design, Becca Jefford’s gaslight lighting and Kimberly Manning’s period costumes add authenticity.

“If Only…a Love Story” plays through Sept. 17, 2017, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street in Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-989-2020 or www.cherrylanetheatre.org

 

 

 

“It”

Susan Granger’s review of “It” (New Line Cinema/Warner Bros.)

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After the film industry’s weakest Labor Day weekend ever, the release of this new Stephen King-based thriller made the box-office sizzle, more than doubling the record set by “Hannibal” for the biggest horror movie opening of all-time.

Helmed by Argentinean director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”), it relates Chapter One of a story about a demonic clown that starts in 1989 in Derry, Maine, and will, eventually, end in the present day.

The terrifying tale begins with the disappearance of six year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), who vanishes down a storm drain in a town that has a missing-persons rate six times the national average. It’s where “Nightmare on Elm Street 5” is playing at the local theater and, behind closed doors, psychological, sexual and physical abuse run rampant.

Searching for Georgie are his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his misfit middle-school pals who call themselves the Losers Club.

Stereotypically, there’s chubby newcomer Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); African-American Mike (Chosen Jacobs); Jewish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), smart-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the self-sufficient girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis).

Every adolescent story has a bully, like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). But the real evil is a child-eating monster known as Pennywise (Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan), a shape-shifting demon who can assume the nightmarish appearance of whatever is most frightening to his victim.

Scripted by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga, it’s the second adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. (Tim Curry played malevolent Pennywise in Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 TV mini-series.) And kudos to Chung Chung-hoon’s engrossing cinematography.

Plus it’s timely, since audiences have been primed by Netflix’s nostalgic hit “Stranger Things,” also starring Fi

nn Wolfhard. Its creators Matt and Ross Duffer cite King’s novel as their show’s inspiration.

FYI: If this sounds like a drug trip, it was. Stephen King confessed that he was high on cocaine and liquor when he wrote it, later claiming to have been sober no more than three hours a day back then.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “It” is a scary, supernatural 7 – with Chapter Two coming next.

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“Year by the Sea”

Susan Granger’s review of “Year by the Sea”

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Based on Joan Anderson’s New York Times best-selling memoir, filmmaker Alexander Janko has made one of those rare, feel-good films that celebrates middle-aged women.

At her son’s wedding reception, Joan (Karen Allen) learns that her husband’s New York office is moving to Wichita, Kansas, and she’s expected to go along with the unexpected relocation.

Since her 30-year marriage to Robin (Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer) has gone stale, Joan decides, instead, to go to off-season Cape Cod to rediscover herself and redefine her life. She’s a writer, so maybe she can find inspiration there.

To her initial dismay, Joan discovers that the rustic cottage that she rented – sight unseen – is a bit off-shore, requiring her to learn to navigate a rowboat.

The next morning, she meets a woman, also named Joan (Celia Imrie), who’s ecstatically dancing on the beach. She’s the wife of pioneering psychologist Erik Erikson (Alvin Epstein), who coined the term “identity crisis.” This free-spirited, new friend becomes her mentor, guiding her gradual, restorative transformation.

Plus there’s hunky clam-digger John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), who not only takes her out on his fishing boat, aptly dubbed Seal Woman, so she can view seals cavorting on a sand bar, but also offers her a job at his fish market.

Joan’s other acquaintances include long-suffering Luce (Monique Gabriela Cuman), who runs the coastal coffee shop, and her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend, Billy (Kohler McKenzie). Plus there’s the continual support of Joan’s literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson).

“I feel a bit like a boat – adrift – with nothing to steady me,” she explains.

Composer Alexander Janko (“Anastasia,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) makes his writer/director debut with this gentle, cliché-riddled, anecdotal melodrama, picturesquely filmed by Bryan Papierski in Chatham, Orleans and Wellfleet in Massachusetts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Year by the Sea” is a subtly sincere, if soggy 6. If you liked “Eat Pray Love,” “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “45 Years,” you’ll enjoy this.

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“Home Again”

Susan Granger’s review of “Home Again” (Open Road Pictures)

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Nepotism has run rampant in Hollywood’s movie industry from the time of its inception, when dozens of relatives of moguls Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor were on the Universal and Paramount payrolls.

So writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer has a prime Hollywood pedigree as daughter of producer/director/writer Nancy Meyers (“The Intern,” “It’s Complicated”) and producer/director/writer Charles Shyer (“Baby Boom,” “Father of the Bride”).

Ms. Shyer launches her career with this character-driven romantic comedy, focusing on Alice (Reese Witherspoon), who has just separated from her workaholic Manhattan-based, music-producer husband Austen (Martin Sheen) and moved to Los Angeles, where her deceased Oscar-winning director/father left her a sprawling Spanish mansion.

As Alice is celebrating her 40th birthday, she’s picked up by 27 year-old Harry (Pico Alexander), an aspiring filmmaker who just happens to be looking for a place to live – with his ambitious moviemaking pals/partners: Teddy (Nat Wolff) and George (Jon Rudnitsky).

Flattered that the young men recognize her as a former cinema siren and charmed by their passion for films, Alice’s mother Lillian (Candice Bergen) suggests they bunk in the luxurious guest cottage. Convenient!

Plus, Alice’s adorably precocious young daughters – Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) – adore the blandly amiable, energetic guys who soon become intricately involved in their lives.

Soon Alice discovers that it’s nice to have millennials around the house, like having 24/7-computer tech service, live-in babysitters and sex with someone who’s 13 years younger.

Meanwhile in a silly subplot, Alice’s attempt to launch a new career as a freelance interior decorator is being torpedoed by Zoey (Lake Bell), an obnoxious, self-involved socialite.

Although there are contrivances galore and the less-than-compelling conflict could get lost in a cone of cotton candy, it’s a superficially amusing diversion, particularly when Reese Witherspoon and Candice Bergen display their adroit comic timing.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Home Again” is an implausibly sparkly 6, a fun chick-flick.

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“Tulip Fever”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tulip Fever” (The Weinstein Company/Paramount Pictures)

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Filmed in 2014, then shelved, this costume drama fails on almost all levels, despite a prestigious cast that includes three Oscar-winners: Christoph Waltz, Alicia Vikander and Judi Dench.

So what went wrong?

Supposedly based on a true story, the romance revolves around Sophia (Vikander), an orphan raised in a convent where the feisty Abbess (Dench) arranges her marriage to elderly widower Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz), a wealthy merchant who desperately wants an heir.

As time goes by, Sophia is unable to get pregnant. So when vain Cornelis hires aspiring artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) to paint a portrait of him and his lovely ‘trophy’ wife, Sophia and Jan fall in love.

Complications arise when Sophia’s saucy servant Maria (Holliday Grainger) becomes pregnant by the fishmonger Willem (Jack O’Connell), threatening to blackmail Sophia by revealing her adulterous trysts.

What’s galling is that this inane soap opera is set in 17th century Amsterdam, where a commodities exchange once revolved around exotic tulip bulbs, the most prized being the mutants with irregularly striped petals. Fortunes were made and lost in “Tulip Mania.”  That’s where the real drama takes place.

According to Skidmore Professor Mehmet Odekon’s financial encyclopedia “Booms and Busts,” this was the first significant, speculative ‘bubble’ in European financial history, damaging the Dutch economy for many years.

Despite elegant efforts from cinematographer Eigil Bryld and production designer Simon Elliott, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) fails to capture the blooming fervor of this historic context, relegating it to background.

Worse yet, he’s unable to generate heat among the three principals, ceding all sexual tension to the supporting players – with Jan’s drunken pal Gerrit (Zach Galifianakis) supplying hollow humor.

Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks first optioned British novelist Deborah Moggach’s 1999 best-seller, planning to pair Natalie Portman with Jude Law at Pinewood Studios in the U.K. – until British Chancellor Gordon Brown abruptly closed the tax loophole funding films.

Then several years passed before Harvey Weinstein hired playwright Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) to adapt Deborah Moggach’s script with all its dreadful dialogue. And Ms. Moggach can be spotted as an ‘extra,’ an old lady, drinking beer and puffing on a clay pipe, in the tavern.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tulip Fever” is a tasteless, torpid 3, wilting as it unfolds.

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“Leap!”

Susan Granger’s review of “Leap!” (The Weinstein Company)

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Aimed specifically at pre-teens, this animated feature has a bizarre history. Originally a French/Canada co-production, titled “Ballerina,” it performed well in Europe last year. Unfortunately, the Americanized version lost its magic somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

Set in the French countryside of Brittany in the late 19th century, the story begins at a dreary orphanage, where spirited 11 year-old Felice (Elle Fanning) and her scruffy friend Victor (Nat Wolff) decide to run away to Paris, where Felice can become a famous ballerina and Victor an accomplished inventor.

After escaping from the surly Supervisor, Monsieur Luteau (Mel Brooks), they arrive in the City of Light, where they’re accidentally separated.

The Eiffel Tower is under construction, and Victor lands a menial job as an apprentice in the prestigious atelier of Gustave Eiffel.

After wandering the streets, Felice sneaks into the Paris Opera Ballet.  When the guard catches her, Felice is befriended by Odette (singer Carly Rae Jepson), the lame cleaning lady who has a second job as a housekeeper for evil restauranteur Regine Le Haut (Kate McKinnon).

Madame Regine’s daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) is also an aspiring ballerina, so Felice deviously wangles her way into Ballet Academy auditions by impersonating snotty, selfish Camille.

Although she yearns to play the part of Clara in “The Nutcracker,” untrained Felice has a problem. As Master Merante (Terrence Scammell) puts it, she has “the energy of a bullet and the lightness of a depressed elephant.”

Thinly scripted by Carol Noble, Laurent Zeitoun and co-director Eric Summer, working with co-director Eric Warin, it relies on a formulaic, yet predictable, often anachronistic underdog plot, exhorting young viewers to “follow your dreams.”

There are many similarities to “Anastasia”: both girls flee from orphanages, both have precious music boxes somehow connected with their past, and both pretend to be someone they’re not.

FYI: “The Nutcracker” didn’t premiere until 1892 and was not performed outside of Russia for many years after that.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Leap!” falls flat with an inconsistent, barely functional 4. Wait for the DVD.

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