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Monday, May 15, 2017

Granger at the Movies: ‘Born in China,’ ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,’ ‘The Dinner’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

Disneynature’s “Born in China” focuses exclusively on animal species unique to China: pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, snow leopards, Chiru antelope and red-crowned cranes.

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Educational, it’s filled with spectacular landscapes and extraordinary close-ups of animal activity, centering on three specific families over the span of a year.

In Sichuan Province’s Wolong National Nature Reserve, attentive Ya Ya is a first-time mother, raising her curious cub Mei Mei in a forest habitat, where solitary adult pandas consume 40 pounds of bamboo each day. Until Mei Mei can climb a tree, making her safe from predators, Ya Ya must watch over her.

Nearby, there’s a mischievous troop of golden snub-nosed monkeys. Tao Tao is an adolescent male being forced out of his family fold to fend for himself.

Rebellious, he joins an all-male sub-group, dubbed the “Lost Boys.” Parents should know there’s a huge predatory goshawk that swoops in, determined to devour Tao Tao’s little sister.

Then, thousands of miles away on the craggy highlands of Qinghai Province’s Tibetan Plateau, there’s majestic Dawa, an elusive snow leopard. Hunting wild goats, mountain sheep and belligerent yaks, she’s raising two little cubs while facing ever-present danger from other ferociously territorial leopards.

Directed by Lu Chuan of China’s Shanghai Media House, it’s scripted by Lu, David Fowler, and renowned BBC filmmakers Brian Leith & Phil Chapman. Barnaby Taylor’s orchestral score incorporates Asian instruments, like a Tibetan horn, Mongolian fiddle and Chinese dulcimer.

Like most Disney films, it anthropomorphizes adorable animals in order to teach life lessons, yet I found it curious that Disney chose John Krasinski, not a woman, to narrate this story about animal mothers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Disneynature’s “Born in China” is a suspenseful yet sedately spiritual 7, as the circle of life continues.

In “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” director Guy Ritchie diminishes the Arthurian legend and the mythology of the sword known as Excalibur to brutal butchery in an indecipherable medieval muddle.

Intended as an origin story, it begins as King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and his queen are killed by his treacherous younger brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), who sacrificed his own wife to Dark Forces, led by the evil sorcerer Mordred, in order to seize the crown.

Sent downriver in a skiff (like Moses, one supposes), their young son is rescued by kindly prostitutes and raised in a brothel in bustling Londinium—with no idea of his Celtic heritage and birthright.

But once hunky Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, a moment sabotaged by a David Beckham cameo, his quest is clear.

Despite the presence of loyal friends (Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillen, Tom Wu) and a supernatural assist from a prescient Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbee), there are many obstacles in his way, prompting Arthur to note (echoing Donald Trump): “I thought leading a revolution against that evil wizard would be easier.”

Working from the simplistic, almost unintelligible screenplay he wrote with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, based on a story by Joby Harold and David Dobkin, Guy Ritchie opts for style over substance, relying on swashbuckling swordplay, mumbled dialogue, rock music and a plethora of special effects, including gigantic, fantastical elephants used as war machines and lots of slithering snakes.

If you’re curious, view John Boorman’s far superior “Excalibur” (1981).

On the Granger Gauge, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a fumbling, fractured 4, unfolding like a frantic video game.

When teenagers commit a heinous crime, how should their parents react?

That’s the ethical dilemma propelling writer/director Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner,” a meandering morality play/meditation, based on Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s controversial 2009 bestseller.

It begins with the narrator, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), as he and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) prepare to join Paul’s older brother Stan (Richard Gere), and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) at a pretentiously elite and outrageously expensive restaurant for dinner.

Their sibling rivalry has left them estranged since childhood, so the brothers rarely socialize, but their three sons (Charlie Plummer, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Miles J. Harvey) have grown up together. Now 16, two of the teenagers commit a callous hate crime in an ATM booth that’s shocked the country.

While their sons’ identities have not yet been discovered, their parents must decide what action to take.

Pragmatic, politically ambitious, yet principled Stan Lohman seemingly has the most at stake, since he’s a popular U.S. congressman who is launching a campaign for governor, an exalted position his trophy second wife has set her sights on.

Troubled Paul is a former high-school history teacher whose incipient rage ripples just below his superficial calm, while patient, supportive Claire is a cancer survivor.

The narrative debate is structured around the epicurean feast’s successive courses, but Moverman and takes us away from the posh restaurant setting by intercutting disconcertingly fragmented flashbacks of the children’s childhoods and the brothers’ trip to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, where so many lives were sacrificed.

The central psychological carnage is overly complicated and self-consciously clever, but Steve Coogan’s agonizing grasp of acerbic Paul’s frustration is stunning. Richard Gere falls back on his usual grace and charm, while Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall convincingly embody their respective roles.

On the Granger Gauge, “The Dinner” is an ominously unbalanced, undercooked 4, culminating in an infuriatingly enigmatic conclusion.


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(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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