“Love Is Strange”

Susan Granger’s review of “Love Is Strange” (Sony Pictures Classics)


John Lithgow and Alfred Molina deliver touching, tour-de-force performances as Ben and George, an elderly Manhattan couple who get married after almost four decades of living together. The story begins on their wedding day, as friends and family gather ‘round to wish them well.

What they don’t realize is that George will immediately get fired from his job as music director at a Roman Catholic school because of ironclad diocesan rules. Since 71 year-old Ben is a retired painter, the newlyweds can no longer afford to pay the mortgage on their cozy co-op in the West Village. While searching for a suitable, affordable, if smaller, apartment and dealing with the complications of urban bureaucracy, they’re temporarily forced to bunk separately.  Melancholy, pragmatic George, who emigrated from Britain years ago, moves in with two, much younger, gay, NYPD cops (Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez) who live downstairs, while loquacious Ben is dispatched to the Brooklyn apartment occupied by his filmmaker nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his novelist wife, prickly Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their angst-riddled teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). A niece offers them lodgings in her spacious Poughkeepsie home but her hospitality is immediately declined because it’s too far out of town. It’s a humiliating dilemma because, as George so astutely puts it: “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to.”

Thoughtfully written by Mauricio Zacharias and director Ira Sachs, who previously collaborated on “Keep the Lights On” (2012), the mellow, sensitive script explores intergenerational differences and unobtrusive loneliness – at a leisurely pace. Unfortunately, the overly loud soundtrack, which leans heavily on contemplative Chopin etudes, is intrusive, but the actors adroitly manage to keep the concept afloat. Although John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have never acted together before, their camaraderie seems natural and their open affection for one another is unbounded. It’s their tender, long-term commitment that remains most memorable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Love Is Strange” is a gentle, bittersweet 7 – about love in its many permutations.

“Space Station 76″

Susan Granger’s review of “Space Station 76” (Sony Pictures)


Do you remember the hilarious sci-fi comedy “Galaxy Quest” (1999)? I suspect that’s what that these filmmakers had in mind – but, unfortunately, their farce fizzles.

Set sometime in the 1970s, the melodramatic plot – which could be called “lust in space” – takes place aboard Omega 76, an interplanetary Space Station, as a newly-appointed assistant captain, Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), arrives on-board.  While valiantly attempting to work with brazenly chauvinistic, closeted Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson), she discovers that he had an affair with her hunky predecessor who departed under mysterious circumstances. Glenn is in such lovelorn despair that, at one point, he tries to commit suicide by electrocuting himself in the bathtub, which the ship’s sophisticated safety features adroitly prevent.

Also aboard are several adulterous couples. There’s self-absorbed, pill-popping Misty (Marisa Coughlan) and her neglected little girl, Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), whose father is Ted (Matt Bomer of TV’s White Collar”), a frustrated, pot-smoking engineer with a prosthetic hand. New mother Donna (Kali Rocha) is coping with an infant, while her husband Steve (Jerry O’Connell) is having an affair with Misty.

Problem is: it’s just not funny, which can probably be traced back to having five screenwriters – Jack Plotnick, Jennifer Cox, Sam Pancake, Kali Rocha, and Michael Stoyanov – whose collaboration is never cohesive.  Co-writer Jack Plotnick makes his feature film directing debut, eliciting earnest performances from his experienced ensemble.  It’s fun to spot Keir Dullea (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) doing a cameo and “Star Wars” fans will recognize an R2D2-like psycho-babbling droid dispensing Valium.

The soundtrack features ‘70s tunes by Todd Rundgren, among others. FYI: Liv Tyler was born Liv Rundgren, although her biological father is Steven Tyler. Her mother, model/singer Bebe Buell, had an affair with Tyler during her longtime relationship with Rundgren, who claimed paternity although he knew the truth. Liv now has a close relationship with both rocker dads.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Space Station 76” is a retro-futuristic 4. It’s a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that goes on far too long.


Susan Granger’s review of “Innocence” (Killer Films/John Wells Productions/Scion Pictures)


Writer/director Hilary Brougher’s heavy-handed adaptation of Jane Mendelsohn’s 2001 Young Adult novel is a ploddingly paced, utterly ridiculous supernatural saga.

Teenage Beckett (Sophie Curtis) is the beleaguered heroine who she suffers one nightmare after another. First, she’s forced to move to Manhattan when her mother drowns in a surfing accident off Montauk. Then, when her dad, renowned author Miles Warner (Linus Roache), enrolls her in a prestigious Riverdale prep school, a classmate named Sunday (Chloe Levine) suddenly commits suicide by jumping off a building, landing on the pavement right in front of her. According to school’s pill-pushing psychiatrist (Sarita Choudhury), Beckett is traumatized but, before long, it gets a lot worse. That’s because Beckett discovers that the creepily striking faculty and alumnae have formed a strange cabal to prey on virginal students, ritually drinking their blood to stay young and beautiful. Sexy Pamela Hamilton (Kelly Reilly), the school nurse, is the most predatory, quickly moving in on Beckett’s dad – both figuratively and literally. Fortunately, Beckett has a couple of adolescent friends in whom she can confide – like rebellious Jen (Sarah Sutherland, Kiefer’s daughter) and Tobey (Graham Phillips), who teaches her how to skate-board. In some bizarre way, this melodramatic Gothic stupidity ties in with Lamia, the queen of Libya who – in ancient Greek mythology – became a child-devouring demon.

It’s particularly disappointing having come from Hilary Brougher, who made the excellent high-school pregnancy drama “Stephanie Daley” (2006) and obviously knows how to handle adolescent angst. Director Brougher apparently co-wrote the script with Tristine Skyler.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Innocence” is a tiresome, incoherent 2. Don’t bother.



“The Drop”

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


In wintry Brooklyn, Bob Saginowsky (Tom Hardy) bartends at the working-class neighborhood tavern run by his Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) that’s used as a drop spot for money that’s picked up ‘after hours’ by the local Chechen mob. When the dingy bar is robbed of $5,000 by two masked gunmen, the Chechans demand to know who is responsible – and Bob doesn’t have a clue. In the meantime, he discovers an abused puppy that’s been dumped in a trash can. With the help of neighborly Nadia (Noomi Rapace), Bob nurses the tiny pit-bull, which he names Rocco, back to health before a menacing psychopath, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), claims the dog as his own. And it all leads up to Super Bowl Sunday, meaning the biggest drop of the year.

Adapted by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone”) from his own 20-page short story, “Animal Rescue,” it’s directed by Belgium’s Michael R. Roskam (“Bullhead”) as a gritty, neo-noir character study.  Bob’s a pensive cypher, rarely saying anything more than is absolutely necessary, particularly when questioned by Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who is curious about why he avoids taking Communion at the nearby Catholic Church, where Bob regularly attends early-morning Mass. Slowly but surely, Tom Hardy peels away the layers of his complicated character, revealing the subtext beneath that mild-mannered, soft-spoken exterior.

During 2014, actor Tom Hardy has emerged as a force to be reckoned with a manner that’s reminiscent of young Marlon Brando. Although unintelligible as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he delivered a tour-de-force performance in “Locke.” Best known as Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, Noomi Rapace serves as Bob’s conflicted foil, while Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone”) is compellingly creepy. And, in his final screen role, James Gandolfini embodies cynical Cousin Marv, a conniving tough guy who’s desperately swimming far beyond his depth.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Drop” is a suspenseful 7, revealing the sleazy underbelly of an urban crime drama.

“Dolphin Tale 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Dolphin Tale 2” (Warner Bros.)


Returning to Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium, this inspired-by-actual-events sequel reunites the original cast, headed by Nathan Gamble and Winter, the severely injured bottleneck dolphin who lost her tail after being entangled in a crab trap and now -with the help of resourceful Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) – swims with a flexible prosthetic tail.

Several years have passed since Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) first bonded with Winter, and the new drama begins with the death of Panama, an elderly dolphin who was Winter’s constant companion in captivity. Usually plucky Winter’s disposition and health are deteriorating fast now that she’s left alone. Marine biologist Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) needs to abide by USDA regulations, requiring dolphin companionship, and find a suitable female replacement for Panama or face Winter’s transfer to a Texas aquatic facility. The obvious choice is a convalesced dolphin named Mandy but she seems ready for release and keeping her at Clearwater would be against the basic principles on which the facility was founded. So the only hope for retaining Winter lies with a very young, recently rescued dolphin calf, appropriately named Hope.

Charles Martin Smith (“American Graffiti,” “Starman”) wrote and directed this somewhat fictionalized rescue/rehabilitate/release story and also appears as a vigilant USDA inspector. While it gets a bit soggy at times and the tension is superficial, this sequel, nevertheless, retains the touching, inspirational appeal of the original. Nathan Gamble retains his enthusiasm, as does Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Haskett’s daughter Hazel, who sings “Brave Souls,” the closing credits song.  While Kris Kristofferson and Ashley Judd have little to do, surfer Bethany Hamilton has a cameo, and there’s even a subplot for Rufus, the persistent pelican.

After the release of “Dolphin Tale” (2011), Gamble and Zuehlsdorff became spokespeople for the Clearwater Marine Hospital, appearing there three times a year, much to the delight of children with disabilities and thousands of tourists who visit the now-famous Gulf Coast attraction.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dolphin Tale 2” is a splashing, sensitive 6. It’s family-friendly fun.

As Above So Below

Susan Granger’s review of “As Above So Below” (Universal Pictures)


Referencing Dante’s entrance to Hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is the inscription uncovered by a gang of 20-something tomb raiders exploring the spooky catacombs underneath the streets of Paris. They’re led by Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), who holds a Ph.D. from University College in London. She is determined to continue her late alchemist father’s lifelong quest to discover the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, rumored to possess the elixir of life, along with the ability to turn base metals, such as lead, into gold. (If the term Philosopher’s Stone sounds familiar, yes, it’s the same one that J.K. Rowling refers to in her Harry Potter books.)

Teaming up with Aramaic-fluent George(Ben Feldman), and documentary cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), along with three French catacomb enthusiasts (Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar), who call themselves “cataphiles” and serve as guides, Scarlett ventures deep into the dark-and-narrow, low-ceilinged catacombs which, according to legend, house the bones of six million dead in mass graves.  Each adventurer is wearing a helmet with an HD cam attached, just above the wearer’s eyes. Among the way, they encounter an assault of demonic imagery, along with a feral weirdo known as “the Mole” (Cosme Castro), who informs them when they’re totally disoriented: “The only way out is down.”

Written and produced by Drew Dowdle, it’s directed by his co-writer/brother John Erick Dowdle (“The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” “Quarantine,” “Devil”), who relies far too much on cinematographer Leo Hinstin’s shaky, hand-held camerawork, augmented by Elliot Greenberg’s jump-cut editing, to sustain suspense in this all-too-familiar found-footage concept.  And the creaking, whispering, chant-filled soundtrack works well to enhance the surreal atmosphere of creepy confinement.

Welsh television actress Perdita Weeks has obviously patterned herself in the fearless, resourceful Lara Croft mold, wading through waist-deep water and watching everyone, including herself, facing his/her worst fears in this $5 million, low-budget endeavor.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “As Above So Below” is a claustrophobic, frightening 4, destined to dwell among other mediocre horror films on the DVD shelf.

“Life of Crime”

Susan Granger’s review of “Life of Crime” (Roadside Attractions)


Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel “The Switch,” this tepid caper comedy references younger versions of characters that were introduced in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.”

Set in the late 1970s in Detroit, the plot pivots on the kidnapping of Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the trophy wife of Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), a corrupt real estate developer, by two, fumbling, low-level grifters, cold-blooded Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def) and his sweet-natured partner Louis Gara (John Hawkes), who intend to extort Frank with inside information about his crooked business practices and off-shore bank accounts.

The stinger in their get-rich-quick scheme is that the husband, a drunken lout who has taken off for a love nest in the Bahamas with his calculating, much-younger mistress Melanie Ralston (Isla Fisher), has just secretly filed for divorce. He decides that he’d rather not pay the $1 million ransom to get his wife back – figuring that, if Mickey dies, it will save him a great deal of alimony. It’s an easy out. That sets off an unbelievable sequence of double crosses and plot twists, involving two of Mickey’s admirers: Marshall Taylor (Will Forte),  a much-married, milquetoast, country-club friend, and Richard (Mark Boone Junior), the crooks’ Nazi-obsessed accomplice, whom Ordell describes as, “He’s so dumb it’s adorable.”

Writer/director David Schechter (“Supporting Characters,” “Goodbye Baby”) cautiously wavers between dark comedy and light-hearted farce. And that tonal inconsistency is reflected in the various performances. Jennifer Aniston underplays the panicked housewife who’s ready to claim any advantage, while Tim Robbins, Isa Fisher, and Will Forte go for the comedy. Fortunately, Schechter respectfully retains Elmore Leonard’s flavorful, gritty dialogue. Indeed, Leonard, who recently died, is listed as an executive producer.

For reference, in “Jackie Brown,” the Ordell Robbie part was originated by Samuel L. Jackson, while Louis was played by Robert de Niro – in very different characterizations.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Life of Crime” is a slackly paced 6, a modestly amusing noir.

“The Trip to Italy”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Trip to Italy” (IFC Films)


Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom reunites his comedic stars from “The Trip” (2010) for another appetizing adventure, as they research an additional gastronomic article for The Observer newspaper in London. This time, instead of exploring northern England, Steve Coogan (“Philomena,” “Night at the Museum”) and Rob Brydon travel in the footsteps of romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, driving their Mini Cooper down spectacularly scenic highways, staying in luxurious suites in high-end hotels and sampling epicurean fare at stylish Italian restaurants – from Piedmont, down the Amalfi Coastline to sun-drenched Capri – while sipping Barolo wine and listening to a Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” CD.

Discarding the minimal plot, it’s the bantering, bickering personalities of acerbic Coogan and jovial Brydon that fuel the fun on this road trip, as these two, middle-aged British actors play semi-fictionalized versions of themselves.  Born in Manchester, Coogan is a cynical pessimist; hailing from Wales, Brydon comes across as an emotionally needy optimist. Their improvised celebrity impersonations – from Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to lock-jawed Clint Eastwood and Hugh Grant, even Tom Hardy, as unintelligibly muzzled Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”– are hilarious. Yet there is an undercurrent of discontent and awareness of mortality in this melancholy journey, as Coogan Skypes with his estranged teenage son (Timothy Leach) and Brydon auditions for a part in an upcoming Hollywood film. One particularly memorable sequence finds Brydon conversing with a fossilized corpse on Mount Vesuvius in the ruins of Pompeii.  Others include riffs on Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy,” Humphrey Bogart’s “Beat the Devil,” Gregory Peck’s “Roman Holiday” and, of course, “La Dolce Vita.”

Glorious food samplings include an assortment of meticulously prepared pastas, tasty moscardini (small octopi) and exquisitely garnished guinea hen. Both this and Winterbottom’s previous “Trip” originated as a six-part BBC television series that’s been edited for theatrical release.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Trip to Italy” is a leisurely, sublimely sybaritic 7, filled with irrepressibly clever repartee.

“The Calling”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Calling” (Vertical Entertainment)


Despite its flimsy plot and low-budget, this wannabe mystery attracted a hefty roster of experienced actors, headed by Susan Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn and Donald Sutherland.

Set in Fort Dundas, a small, rural town in Ontario, Canada, the story revolves around a divorced, pain-wracked police officer, Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef (Sarandon), who suffers from a herniated disc, among other maladies. One morning, as Hazel is making her usual rounds, swilling her liquor-laced coffee, she discovers the gruesome corpse of an ailing, elderly woman whose throat has been cut and whose head is nearly severed. Soon after, a stranger named Simon (Christopher Heyerdahl) appears in town. He’s an herbalist healer/religious fanatic and, obviously, a serial killer-on-the-prowl for his next victim, someone who will willingly drink his toxic tea. Joining Hazel in her grisly investigation – which reaches across Canada – are a fellow detective Ray (Gil Bellows) and Ben (Topher Grace), a recent rookie transfer from Toronto.

Adapted by Scott Abramovich (“Prayer Hour”) from a novel by Inger Ash Wolfe (a.k.a. Canadian author Michael Redhill), it’s filled with clichés and lethargically directed by Jason Stone (“This Is the End”), who fails to achieve any dramatic momentum despite the dark, pseudo-religious theme, since it’s obvious from the moment he appears that Simon is the murderer.

What redeem this weird thriller are the strong performances. Susan Sarandon delves far deeper than the writing allows into Hazel’s angst. Christopher Heyerdahl (TV’s “Hell on Wheels”) displays a creepiness that knows no bounds. Ellen Burstyn toys with humor as Hazel’s concerned mother, a retired judge. And Donald Sutherland scores as the elderly cleric who unravels the murky, mysterious mysticism, which is based on ancient and archaic Christian scriptures.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Calling” is a supernatural 3, a somber meditation on ritualistic murder.

“The November Man”

Susan Granger’s review of “The November Man” (Relativity Media)


Beginning in 2008 in Montenegro on the shores of Lake Geneva, retired CIA agent Peter Deveraux (Pierce Brosnan) is recruited back into service by John Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), his former handler. When there’s a lethal glitch in the mission, Devereaux reluctantly finds himself pitted against his own trigger-happy protégé, David Mason (Aussie actor Luke Bracey), while attempting to protect a relief agency worker, Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), in Belgrade. She has evidence that could jeopardize the ambitions of a misogynistic, Putin-like politician named Federov (Lazar Ristovski), who seems to be next in line for the Russian presidency.

As this curiously convoluted espionage plot unfolds, involving the Russian-Chechnyan conflict, their paths cross with a former CIA double-agent with whom Deveraux once had a significant romantic relationship, a bumbling New York Times reporter, and a ruthless Russian assassin.

Generically adapted and updated by Michael Finch & Karl Gajdusek from “There Are No Spies” (1986), the seventh book in Bill Granger’s Peter Devereaux series, it’s formulaically directed by Roger Donaldson (“No Way Out,” “Thirteen Days”), leaving Brosnan, who should know better, uttering ridiculous lines like, “Don’t put your faith in me. I promise I’ll disappoint you.” Unfortunately, it’s not too difficult to spot Brosnan’s stunt double in some of the more dangerous combat sequences.

The rights to film this spy thriller were acquired by Pierce Brosnan and his Irish Dream Time partner, Beau St. Clair, more than 10 years ago, when Brosnan retired from playing 007, a.k.a. British Secret Service Agent James Bond.  (He followed Sean Connery and Roger Moore in the iconic role and was succeeded by Daniel Craig.) It’s Brosnan’s world-weary performance that tips the scale on this saga of international intrigue, since Olga Kurylenko was a Bond girl in “Quantum of Solace” (2008).

(As a local tie-in, Bill Smitrovich was born in Bridgeport, CT, educated at Smith College and worked as an acting teacher at the University of Massachusetts. )

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The November Man” is a slick ‘n’ sturdy 6, stumbling only occasionally.