Susan Granger on Stage & Screen

Gaslit

A half-century after the nation was riveted by the Watergate scandal, the Congressional committee hearings about the January 6th attack on the Capitol are eerily reminiscent of that era, as depicted in the eight-chapter Starz original miniseries “Gaslit.”

Delivering Emmy-worthy performances, Julia Roberts stars as flamboyant Martha Mitchell with Sean Penn as her husband, Attorney General John Mitchell, in this political thriller.

Back in the 1970s, wealthy Arkansas socialite Martha became a media star for her outspoken accusations that POTUS Richard Nixon and his cohorts were responsible for the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. A pill-popping alcoholic, nicknamed “The Mouth of the South,” Martha became Watergate’s Cassandra — for which she eventually paid the price.

While gregarious Martha seemed to know all about the conspiracy and cover-up, at first no one would listen to her. Even as she gave interviews and did the talk-show rounds, she faced doubt and derision.

Other primary players are ambitious White House Counsel John Dean (Dan Stevens) and his levelheaded wife Maureen (Betty Gilpin), along with earnest Watergate security guard Frank Willis (Patrick R. Walker) and sadistic, delusional Nixon loyalist G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Wigham).

Adapted by showrunner Robbie Pickering (“Mr. Robot”) from the Slate podcast “Slow Burn: Watergate” and empathetically directed by Matt Ross (“Big Love”), it captures Washington D.C.’s culture of complicity and cultural bitterness as it relates several personal stories, relentlessly cutting from one to another.

“I really didn’t want to make a show that was a Wikipedia rundown of Watergate,” states Pickering in the press notes. “I’m more interested in how complicity destroys people.”

Astutely aided by hair/make-up, Julia Roberts poignantly captures Martha’s complicated, impetuous nature, including her quippy charm. Wearing heavy prosthetics and a bald cap, Sean Penn is almost unrecognizable as hefty, jowly John Mitchell, torn between loyalties to President Nixon and to his beloved wife.

True to Martha’s real 1976 funeral, an anonymous supporter sent a huge, white chrysanthemum floral arrangement that spelled out: “Martha Was Right.”

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gaslit” is an addictive, intriguing 8, streaming on Starz and accessible via Hulu.

 

Zero Contact

As an avid Anthony Hopkins fan, I’ll see any of his movies BUT here’s an oddity: “Zero Contact.”

Reportedly produced remotely in 17 different countries during the 2020 global pandemic, it’s intended to be a high-tech, sci-fi thriller.

Making his directing debut, producer Rick Dugdale focuses on widower Finley Hart (Hopkins) a mysterious billionaire who is, allegedly, dead from kidney failure. That doesn’t stop the tech entrepreneur from masterminding what passes for a plot by Cam Cannon (“Deadlock”).

From the netherworld, Finley is intent on reinstating something he left unfinished called the “Quantinuum Initiative,” involving teleportation before a global disaster occurs — which requires the use of a “machine that runs on dark matter reactor.”

That precipitates a boring Hart Enterprises video conference call, involving Finley’s estranged son Sam (Chris Brochu), German lawyer Veronica (Veronica Ferres), Japanese innovation expert Riku (TJ Kayama), Board Chairman Hakan (Martin Stenmark) and a computer hacker (Aleks Gaunovic).

Each of Finley’s minions is supposed to input a secret code to activate the Quantinuum Initiative. But since they don’t understand what’s happening (nor do we), they’re somewhat reluctant. Rather predictably, there’s an uninvited, unwanted intruder who is up to no good. All of this Zoom-recorded derring-do is punctuated by a barrage of technobabble, signifying nothing.

Most disturbing of all, when the callers are placed ‘on-hold,’ we’re forced to repeatedly listen to “The Pina Colada Song” … that is, when the electronic score by Anders Niska and Klas Wahl isn’t providing distraction.

Anthony Hopkins always oozes charisma, inviting viewers into his Southern California home, where he delivers mind-melding monologues. He ruminates about art and science, in addition to playing one of his own musical compositions on the piano. But that’s not enough to save this cinematic waste of time.

Originally released as “the world’s first star-powered feature film NFT,” it’s unknown whether anyone ever purchased it.

On the Granger Gauge, “Zero Contact” musters a barely coherent, tedious 2, available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, Vudu and Apple TV+.

 

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures. Her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M.

As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O’Brien, and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism.

During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie and drama critic, syndicating her reviews and articles around the world, including Video Librarian. She has appeared on American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies. In 2017, her book 150 Timeless Movies was published by Hannacroix Creek Books.

Her website is www.susangranger.com. Follow her on Twitter @susangranger.

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