“Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance”

Susan Granger’s review of “Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Set for release on the day before the Kentucky Derby, Louise Osmond’s uplifting, feel-good film shows how sometimes ordinary gals-and-guys can not only compete but win at the elitist “sport of kings.”

The story begins when a middle-aged barmaid, Janet Vokes, in a South Wales workingman’s pub gets an over-the-rainbow notion to breed a steeplechase racehorse. Knowing, she’ll need financial support, she rallies her friends and neighbors, including a local tax adviser, Howard Davies, who forms a “syndicate.”

Together, they raise the money necessary to buy Rewbell, a brood mare, and find a promising, yet inexpensive stud, Bien Bien. Then they patiently wait for the scrappy foal – named Dream Alliance – to be trained. While Dream’s first races against thoroughbreds aren’t spectacular, he becomes a serious contender, finishing second in Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup, then actually winning the Perth Cup.

What could be an insurmountable problem occurs when Dream Alliance severs a tendon, and the owners must decide whether to put him down or fork over more of their hard-earned cash for expensive surgery. The outcome is obvious when Dream Alliance wins the Welsh Grand National at odds of 20-1.

It was the former coal-mining community’s resolute tenacity that intrigued British director Louise Osmond (“Deep Water”) and inspired this documentary that’s peppered with talking-head interviews.

“I knew nothing about racing,” Vokes admits. ”I did know these well-to-do people like to keep the sport to themselves.”

Indeed, when one member of the syndicate tries to bring a brown-bag lunch to the racecourse, he’s turned away at the gate.

“’Dream’ took us to places you couldn’t even imagine,” muses Davies. “We actually broke the mold…It’s elating when you can do something, particularly when no one gives you a chance.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance” is an inspirational 6, a defiant, rags-to-riches equine tale that’s patched together from archival footage.

06

 

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” (Universal Pictures)

 

So much went wrong with this disjointed prequel/sequel to “Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012) that it could serve as a warning to aspiring filmmakers.

First, there’s no Snow White.  After Kristen Stewart had a scandalous, ill-fated fling with married director Rupert Sanders, it was obvious that neither would be returning for this next episode.

Salary troubles surfaced when Sony e-mail hacks revealed Charlize Theron was to be paid substantially less than Chris Hemsworth; she refused to sign until she got the same $10 million+ as her co-star.

Then, A-list screenwriters David Koepp and Frank Darabont exited the project, leaving Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin to dabble with (but never develop) the campy, medieval characters created by Evan Daugherty – with a nod to Elsa’s Snow Queen in Disney’s “Frozen” – under the aegis of VFX supervisor-turned-director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan.

The characters are introduced by a narrator (Liam Neeson): there’s scheming, perennially evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who feuds with her rage-filled, recently disillusioned younger sister, Ice Queen Freya (Emily Blunt). They’re challenged by former child soldiers Sara (Jessica Chastain) and Eric (Chris Hemsworth) who, years ago, were kidnapped from their homes and forced to serve in Freya’s frosty Army.

Then along comes Prince William (Sam Claflin), a leftover morsel from “Snow White and the Huntsman,” who recruits hunky, ax-throwing Eric to recover the coveted Magic Mirror. He’s joined in this quest by dwarves Nion (Nick Frost), his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon) and Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith), along with Sara.

What works? The spectacular visual effects, particularly the shape-shifting liquid gold of the Mirror – thanks to production designer Dominic Watkins, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and costume designer Colleen Atwood.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is a fumbling 4, a fatally flawed fairytale.

04

“A Hologram for the King”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Hologram for the King” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

 

Divorced, broke and unable to pay his daughter’s college tuition, Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is introduced in an angst-filled, fantasy dream sequence, singing Talking Head’s “Once in a Lifetime.”

Apparently chosen for this job because of some vague connection to the Royal family, Clay is an affable, middle-aged American businessman who arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, determined to sell a 3D holographic communications system to King Abdullah.

Jet-lagged, Clay oversleeps his first day on the job, forcing him to find a driver-for-hire, wise-cracking Yousef (comedian Alexander Black), to take him to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (KMET), where Clay and his clueless IT team of three millennials are stuck in a tent in the middle of a construction site surrounded by camel-strewn desert.

Disoriented, unsettled and impatient, Clay must not only deal with the obvious cultural differences he encounters in this eerie model city but also his existential loneliness and need to rediscover a sense of purpose.

It’s two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks’ heartfelt performance that propels your interest, particularly when a flashback reveals Clay’s father (Tom Skerritt) berating him for outsourcing of American jobs at the Schwinn Bicycle Company.

As days pass while waiting for the King or, at least, his liaison to arrive, Clay discovers a large cyst on his back; this metaphoric growth, he fears, is sapping his strength and vigor. Which leads him to seek help from a sympathetic Saudi physician, Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), as a subtle relationship develops.

Adapted from Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel by German writer/director Tom Twyker (“Run Lola Run,” “Cloud Atlas”), it’s a timely, if trifling allegory about malaise and globalization, not far removed from Jack Lemmon’s “Save the Tiger” (1973), Bill Murray’s “Lost in Translation” (2003) and Ewan MacGregor’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” (2011).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Hologram for the King” is a strangely stylized, absurdist 6, so it’s not surprising that the epigraph comes from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”: “It is not every day that we are needed.”

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“Elvis & Nixon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Elvis & Nixon” (Bleecker Street/Amazon Studios)

 

Chronicling an amusing historical anecdote, Liza Johnson’s droll reminiscence shows how Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) met President Richard M. Nixon (Kevin Spacey) in the Oval Office one afternoon.

In late 1970, watching the news at Graceland, Presley becomes so infuriated with the growing drug problem and moral decline in the United States that he shoots out the TV set with a .45. That’s his first reaction.

His second is to become an undercover federal agent. But – for that – he’ll need a badge from J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Narcotics. And the only way to get one is from the President of the United States.

So it falls it Presley’s long-time confidante, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), along with Memphis crony Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), to deliver a rambling, hand-written letter to the White House and convince Nixon aides Egil “Bud” Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) to arrange an appointment.

Oblivious to Presley’s influence, Nixon has absolutely no interest in meeting the pop singer – until his daughter Julie begs for an autographed photo. Once the two meet, protocol is discarded as the King and POTUS chat informally – with Presley gulping the President’s Dr. Pepper and munching his M&Ms.

Michael Shannon digs beneath the ridiculous glitz and swagger to reveal Presley as seriously delusional, yet down-to-earth Southerner who firmly believes he can secretly infiltrate disruptive groups, like the Black Panthers, and bring them to justice.

In contrast, Kevin Spacey embodies hunched-over Nixon’s chronic insecurity and social ineptitude with remarkable mimicry, never succumbing to caricature.

Inventively fictionalized by screenwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes, it’s astutely directed by Liza Johnson as a “Dr. Strangelove’ish” two-hander, focusing on the quirks and foibles of these two iconic figures.

FYI: the most requested photo in the National Archive is the one of Presley and Nixon shaking hands at the conclusion of their Oval Office meeting on December 21, 1970.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Elvis & Nixon” is a surreal 7, revealing a bizarre moment at the summit.

07

“Barbershop: The Next Cut”

Susan Granger’s review of “Barbershop: The Next Cut” (Warner Bros.)

 

It’s been about a dozen years since we last visited Calvin’s Barbershop on Chicago’s South Side. Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube) and his longtime cohorts, including Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) and Terri (Eve), are still there but there have been some major additions.

There’s Calvin’s teenage son Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.) and Calvin’s best-friend Rashad (Common), along with dorky Jerrod (Lamorne Morris), son-of-Indian-immigrants Raja (Utkarsh Ambudkar), enterprising One-Stop (J.B. Smoove) and outspoken Dante (Deon Cole)

But most noticeably, the male bastion has gone co-ed. The ladies’ salon is managed by Angie (Regina Hall) with savvy Bree (Margot Bingham) and saucy Draya (Nicki Minaj), whose buttocks obviously fascinate cinematographer Greg Gardiner.

Functioning as the community’s social meeting-place, it’s where the timely issue of senseless, gang-affiliated neighborhood shootings is thrashed out. With the urgent threat of an ominous “enclosure” soon to be voted on by the city council, the crew decides to promote a 48-hour cease-fire – with free haircuts, weaves and styling for the weekend.

On the lighter side, there’s the inevitable war-of-the-sexes with its predictable gossip, squabbling about infidelity and enlightened riffing about gender stereotypes.

“It’s a comedy, but it’s a story that has heart – with all the gang violence that’s going on in Chicago, and the gun violence that’s going on around America,” notes rapper Common.

Working from a screenplay by Kenya Barris (ABC-TV’s “Black-ish”) & Tracy Oliver (“The Neighbors”), based on Ned Brown’s characters, it’s effectively directed by Malcolm D. Lee (“Best Man” series, “Undercover Brother”), Spike’s cousin.

FYI: New York-based playwright J.D. Lawrence, a.k.a. Ronald Dickerson, has filed an opportunistic lawsuit against the “Barbershop” franchise, claiming it ripped of his stage play “Scissors” set in a black barbershop, focusing on its importance in the local community. It’s curious why Lawrence waited all these years…perhaps to score a bigger payoff?

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Barbershop: The Next Cut” is a snippy 7 – with relevant social commentary.

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“The Jungle Book”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Jungle Book” (Disney)

 

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s magical stories and inspired by Disney’s 1967 animated classic, this eye-popping, live-action, epic adventure revolves around the man-cub Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi).

An orphaned toddler, Mogli was found in India’s jungle by the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and raised by a family of wolves, led by Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o).

Observing a truce during the drought, predators and prey live in harmony, gathering around the water hole, until the snarling, vengeful Bengal tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) comes searching for Mowgli. It seems that Shere Khan was burned and scarred by the “red flower” (a.k.a. fire), wielded in self-defense by Mowgli’s late father.

In order to protect Mowgli, Bagheera decides to return him to his own people. But diversions occur along the way, as Mowgli’s caught in the chest-crushing coils of the slithering, seductive python, Kaa (hissed by Scarlett Johansson), and rescued by the honey-hustling bear, Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray), only to be bullied by the local Godfather, King Louis (voiced by Christopher Walken), a gigantic orangutan-like ape.

What’s astonishing is how Disney’s Imagineers, utilizing sophisticated motion capture, director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Elf”) and cinematographer Bill Pope, seamlessly integrate a human actor with photorealistic CGI animals in their exotic environment, particularly the elephants, the undisputed rulers of the realm.  And if you’re not already convinced, a title card during the credits reads” “Filmed in downtown Los Angeles.”

Although it’s not a musical, Justin Marks’ screenplay incorporates two familiar songs: “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” along with the mantra: “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

And a sequel with director Jon Favreau is already in the works.

One caution: the scary sequences are savage, so it’s advised for youngsters over the age of 10.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Jungle Book” is a stunning 10. An absolutely awesome treat, particularly in 3D!

10

 

“The Boss”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boss” (Universal Pictures)

 

You can see Melissa McCarthy’s best bits from this wannabe comedy in the trailer.

As brash Michelle Darnell, she’s a self-made financial guru – “the 47th wealthiest woman in America” – who gets arrested and convicted for insider trading. When she’s released from prison, she’s so broke that she’s forced to bunk in with her former assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell).

A hard-working single mom, Claire lives in a cramped, second-floor apartment with her tween daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson).

“You’re dressed like someone who grocery shops at CVS,” Michelle tells Claire as she’s preparing for a date.

When Michelle takes Rachel to her Dandelion (think Girl Scout) troop meeting, she tangles with another mother and, subsequently, concocts a plan to have the girls sell Claire’s delicious “family recipe” brownies instead of cookies – and take home some real profit from their efforts.

Territorial integrity prompts a violent street brawl (shot in slow-motion) between the Dandelions and Michelle’s recruits, Darnell’s Darlings, along with a romantic subplot involving a rival entrepreneur, Ron/Renault (Peter Dinklage).

Raised in a Catholic orphanage after being rejected from series of foster homes, self-reliant Michelle firmly believes that human relationships – a.k.a. family – are an unwanted burden, along with feeling compassion.

Episodically scripted by Melissa McCarthy and her husband, director Ben Falcone (“Tammy”), along with Steve Mallory, it’s a vulgar, if zany riff on female empowerment – which is a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say.

Years ago, this creative trio worked together as part of Los Angeles’ improve theater troupe known as the Groundlings – and that’s where the arrogant, profanity-spewing Michelle Darnell character first surfaced.

Problem is: the vulgar, R-rated shenanigans aren’t appropriate for the young audience that would most appreciate the slapstick pratfalls.

FYI: Melissa McCarthy just became the first female recipient of MTV’s Comedic Genius Award and will return as Sookie St. James, the ditsy chef on Netflix’s “Gilmore Girls” four-part revival.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Boss” is a flimsy 4.  Melissa McCarthy deserves better.

04

“Demolition”

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

 

While wealthy Wall Street investment banker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), are bickering in their car, they’re blindsided and there’s a horrific crash.

Julia’s dead, but all Davis can think about is the package of Peanut M&Ms that got stuck in the chrome spiral of the hospital’s vending machine.

So he channels his numbing grief into writing the first in a series of confrontational letters to Champion Vending Machines, while – far too literally – heeding the advice of his anguished father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper).

“Repairing a human heart is like repairing an automobile,” Davis is told, “You have to take it apart – and examine everything. Then you can put it back together.”

Which means that when the refrigerator leaks, Davis bashes it apart. The same with the cappuccino machine, creaky bathroom door, light fixture and an office computer that freezes up. Eventually, Davis joins a wrecking crew, wielding a sledgehammer.

Meanwhile, sympathetic Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the vending machine company’s customer service representative, realizes that this widower’s angst goes far deeper than a package of Peanut M&Ms, so she impulsively calls him – at 2 a.m.; not surprisingly, a weird relationship develops between these two troubled souls.

But the most memorable, if somewhat misguided scene occur between Davis and Karen’s rebellious, classic rock-loving, pre-teen son, Chris (Judah Lewis), when the vulnerable, angst-riddled kid, searching for his identity, asks if he might be homosexual.

First-time screenwriter Bryan Sipe, French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Wild,” “Dallas Buyers Club”) and actor Jake Gyllenhaal work overtime to delineate Davis’s cryptic, almost sociopathic lack of empathy with clumsy dark comedy.

FYI: In a bizarre coincidence, in both “Southpaw” (2015) and “Demolition” (2016), Jake Gyllenhaal’s character’s wife dies in the opening scenes.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Demolition” is a flawed, dysfunctional 5, like the metaphoric street signs on which he fixates: Detour, Wrong Way, Dead End.

05

“Jane Got a Gun”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jane Got a Gun” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Unfortunately, the backstory on this revisionist Western is more interesting than what unfolds on-screen, as Natalie Portman plays Jane Hammond, a pistol-packin’ frontierswoman in the New Mexico Territory.

It begins in 1871, when Jane’s husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich), comes home, having been shot several times by the Bishop Boys, led by villainous John (Ewan McGregor), who – Bill says – are “comin’” to wreak revenge.

After depositing their daughter with a neighbor, Jane enlists help from her brooding ex-fiancé, gunslinger Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), who, apparently, was away too long, fighting in the Civil War but now, conveniently, dwells nearby. Together, they fortify the Hammond homestead, preparing for the Bishops’ siege.

Muddled flashbacks reveal that, seven years earlier, Jane left Huntsville, Missouri, toting her young daughter, joined a wagon train, only to be kidnapped and forced into prostitution – until Bill Hammond saved her.

Episodically scripted by Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis and Joel Edgerton, it’s heavy-handedly directed by Gavin O’Connor at a snail’s pace.

So what went wrong? Almost everything.

On the first day of production in March, 2013, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) abruptly quit, followed by her two leading men, Michael Fassbender and Jude Law, along with cinematographer Darius Khondji.

Director Gavin O’Connor (“Tumbleweeds,” “Warrior”) and cinematographer Many Walker (“Truth”) were recruited, along with Bradley Cooper, who then left to make “American Hustle.” Lawsuits followed – and were subsequently settled.

Despite the steadfast star power of Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) and Joel Edgerton’s willingness to exchange the juicy role of John Bishop for the part of Dan Frost, the original financing unraveled, only to be rescued by a long list of new producers (too many to count!) who have allowed the project to quietly ride off into the sunset.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jane Got a Gun” is a female-centric 5 – that one wishes were better.

05

 

 

“Misconduct”

Susan Granger’s review of “Misconduct” (Lionsgate Premiere)

 

Why would a neo-noir legal thriller, starring Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino, wind up on VOD, instead of in theaters? Because it’s inexcusably awful!

Set in New Orleans, the plot revolves around Ben Cahill (Josh Duhamel), an ambitious young lawyer working on a class-action involving Arthur Denning (Anthony Hopkins), a smugly corrupt Big Pharma kingpin.

Ben’s wife Charlotte (Alice Eve) is a registered nurse who has become a workaholic to cloak her depression after her recent miscarriage.

Suddenly, Ben’s seductive ex-girlfriend Emily (Malin Akerman) contacts him, telling him she’s got incriminating computer files that will indict Denning, who just happens to be her current lover.

But when ethically-challenged Ben takes the evidence to his firm’s senior partner, Charles Abrams (Al Pacino), Emily is mysteriously kidnapped.

After that, not much is coherent. There’s Denning’s forthright security specialist (Julia Stiles) and a terminally ill South Korean hit-man (Byung-hun Lee), careening around on a motorbike.

If screenwriters Simon Boyes and Adam Mason came up with anything original, it eluded me, while debuting feature-film director Shintaro Shimosawa (co-producer of “The Grudge” and its sequel) discards logical progression and pacing in favor of curious camera angles devised by cinematographer Michael Fimognari. He particularly favors focusing on one character’s reaction to what’s being said by someone else; it’s a distracting film-school device that quickly becomes tedious.

While Josh Duhamel does his best with the melodramatic absurdity, it’s obvious that both Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino simply cashed their paychecks and moved on to more promising projects.

As for Malin Akerman, her coldly calculated performance seems to be streamed directly from her role as scheming Lara Axelrod on TV’s “Billions.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Misconduct” is a misbegotten 2. It’s an $11 million mistake.

02