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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.

“Things We Do For Love”

Susan Granger’s review of “Things We Do For Love” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Known as the most produced living playwright, Alan Aykbourn has written more than 77 plays, one for every year of his life. Set in a three-story house in London, this dark comedy about relationships has three out of five ingredients necessary for a successful play: the script is witty, the acting is superb, and the energetic direction is perceptive.

The bittersweet story revolves around Barbara (Geneva Carr), an outspoken, yet lonely and uptight professional assistant who’s devoted to her very-married boss. She’s just rented the upstairs flat to a needy former school chum, Nikki (Sarah Manton), who moves in with her new fiancé Hamish (Matthew Greer) while their house is being remodeled. The tenant downstairs is a garrulous widower, Gilbert (Michael Mastro), a postman who moonlights as Barbara’s handyman. Passion, lust and secrecy abound as the foursome frolics and fights among themselves.

Geneva Carr is exquisite as spiky Barbara, particularly when she’s snidely dismissive of Hamish, who is both Scottish and a vegetarian. Sarah Manton embodies affection-craving Nikki, a perennial victim. Matthew Greer scores as affable Hamish, while Michael Mastro adds a creepily unctuous fervor to the conflict.  Juggling all the emotional discourse, veteran director John Tillinger sets a fast-pace, adroitly aided by fight choreographer Robert Westley.  And Laurie Churba Kohn’s costuming is spot-on.

The problem with this production lies with James Noone’s scenic design and Paul Miller’s elusive lighting. According to Aykbourne’s notes, the set should resemble a layer cake. The main focus is compulsive Barbara’s immaculately tidy living-room, where most of the action takes place. Upstairs, there’s another flat, but the audience can only glimpse the actors’ lower limbs. Downstairs, there’s a basement in which audience should be able to see only the ceiling and the actor’s head. But – in this Westport production – it doesn’t work. There really isn’t a good seat in the house: meaning, you cannot see all three floors from anywhere. As a result of that discordant element, audience members are deprived of emotional involvement. In addition, at two-and-a-half hours with one intermission, it’s far too long.

“Things We Do For Love” is at the Westport Country Playhouse until Sunday, Sept. 7. For tickets and information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

NOTE: REACTION FROM MARK LAMOS, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE WESTPORT COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE

“There is a houseful of great seats at the Playhouse for our current production. Everything that happens in the basement apartment is completely clear to everyone in the audience, whether they can see the sliver of a set or not. This is due to the extraordinary clarity of the acting and directing. Not being able to see the apartment has nothing to do with the success of the production.”

“When the Game Stands Tall”

Susan Granger’s review of “When the Game Stands Tall” (TriStar Pictures/Sony)

Based on the true story of a Catholic high school in suburban Concord, California, and its football team’s longest winning streak, it introduces the De La Salle Spartans, whose 151-game winning streak (1992-2003) remains a national gridiron record.

Then, in late 2003, after the Spartans win yet another state championship, Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) suffers a heart attack and their star player, T.K. Kelly (Stephan James), is killed in a random shooting, just as he’s preparing to move to Eugene, Oregon, to play college football. Not long afterwards, the Spartans lose the first two games of the 2004 season. Deducing that the team has become cocky, far more focused on achieving personal glory than teamwork, newly recovered Coach Lad (who also teaches religious studies) and his longtime assistant coach Terry Eddison (Michael Chiklis) decide to impart lessons about discipline and good sportsmanship.

Reciting from Matthew 23:13: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled. And whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

Part of Sony Pictures push toward faith-based productions under its Affirm Films label, it’s a formulaic sports drama, adapted into a sermonizing parable by Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon from Neil Hayes’s 2003 non-fiction book and directed at a laconic pace by Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter”). Unfortunately, none of the characters are memorable individuals and the stereotypical team members are virtually indistinguishable, except for the running back Chris Ryan, played by Alexander Ludwig, a former child star from “Race to Witch Mountain” (2009) who plays Tribute Cato in “The Hunger Games.”  Even the football scrimmage sequences are bland, barring the climactic match. Having established his reputation as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Jim Caviezel is no stranger to stoic, secular righteousness. And as his dutiful wife, Laura Dern’s considerable talent is totally wasted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “When the Game Stands Tall” is an insipid, fumbling 4, even though it’s filled with earnest intentions.

“Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

Susan Granger’s review of “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (Dimension Films)

 

Back in 2005, director Robert Rodriguez brought Frank Miller’s ferociously sexy comic series to the big screen, looking like an ultra-stylized, neo-noir cartoon. And the sequel’s just more of the same. It consists of four interwoven stories, set in the titular Sin City.

In the first, Marv (Mickey Rourke) wreaks revenge against some rich, frat boys who are killing homeless people. In the second, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cocky young gambler, picks up Marcy (Julia Garner) as a ‘good luck’ charm before he brashly bests ruthless Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) in a poker game. In the third segment, Dwight (Josh Brolin), a surly private detective, succumbs to the seductive charms of duplicitous Ava (Eva Green), who claims she needs his help. And the final episode revolves around Nancy (Jessica Alba), a hard-drinking stripper who has been haunted by the death of her love, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), focusing her rage on Senator Roark and enlisting the aid of ever-willing Marv.

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, it’s a series of grim, mega-violent vignettes, strung together with loosely connective tissue and self-consciously punctuated with cheesy, hard-boiled dialogue. As the titular ‘dame,’ Eva Green is uninhibitedly exhibitionistic, brazenly flaunting her to-die-for figure in several gratuitous nude scenes. The supporting cast includes Stacy Keach, Christopher Lloyd, Jeremy Piven, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Rosario Dawson, even Lady Gaga. But what’s most memorable are the monochromatic cinematography and unusual production values, including make-up, costumes and striking special effects.

Prime Focus World did the CGI. Founded in 1997 in Mumbai, Prime Focus gave India its first high-end scanning, recording and finishing system. When the company over-expanded to Vancouver, London and Los Angeles, its fortunes declined, so it merged with London’s Double Negative. Whether PFW survives may depend on how well this picture does, since it bartered for a share of the profits.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is a ham-fisted 4, visually stunning but emotionally lifeless.

“The Expendables 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Expendables 3” (Lionsgate/Millennium Films)

 

This latest installment in Sylvester Stallone’s action franchise is filled with beefy heroes, a really bad guy and an endless barrage of bullets as the murder and mayhem continues.

The opening sequence features a helicopter-versus-train battle in which Barney Ross (Stallone) and what’s left of his crew help a fellow mercenary, a knife expert known as Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), escape from incarceration.  Barney needs Doc to help him intercept an arms deal in Somalia. But their mission fizzles when they discover the bigwig brokering the deal is Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former Expendable whom Barney thought he’d killed when he went rogue.  Determined to take down sociopathic Stonebanks, Barney dismisses his former crew (Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Jason Statham. Jet Li) and – with the help of Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), hires younger, more agile and tech-savvy newbies (Kellan Lutz, Antonio Banderas, Glen Powell, mixed-martial-arts champ Ronda Rousey, boxer Victor Ortiz). Ferried by competitor Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and joined by Agent Drummer (Harrison Ford), who wants Stonebanks to stand trial for war crimes at The Hague, they’re off to do the CIA’s dirty work once again. Only, things don’t go exactly as planned.

Co-screenwriter Stallone make sure every action icon gets a token scene, while director Patrick Hughes propels the formulaic soldiers-of-fortune story. If you’re curious why Bruce Willis is a ‘no show’ after appearing in the first two movies, apparently, he wanted $4 million for four days’ work; Stallone offered him $3 million, so Willis walked. But Wesley Snipes is back, self-referentially alluding to his real-life issue with tax evasion.  Stallone uses his usual three expressions: sorrowful, strained and sneering, so it’s up to loquacious Antonio Banderas to enliven the tedium.

FYI: Pirates were able to steal a print, most likely from an independent special-effects finishing firm, releasing it on the Internet in July so 2.2 million fans were able to download it free.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Expendables” is a tired 3, filled with punishing chase scenes and repetitive gunfire.

 

“If I Stay”

Susan Granger’s review of “If I Stay” (Warner Bros.)

 

It’s curious that the current crop of teenage tragedies adapted from Young Adult fiction, like “The Fault in Our Stars” and now “If I Stay,” so adeptly incorporates the essential question that sustains all cinematic suspense: Will the protagonist survive?  And in this case, she must make the choice herself.

In Portland, Oregon, Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a teenage rebel.  A classical music nerd, she’s passionate about playing the cello, idolizes Yo-Yo Ma and Beethoven and has her heart set on attending Julliard. That stuns her free-spirited parents (Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard), former rock ‘n’ rollers, and her younger brother (Jakob Davies).  But her super cool boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley) understands, even though he fronts a rocker band.  Then, one day, when a snowstorm blankets the landscape, there’s a horrific automobile accident which decimates her family. Seriously injured, hovering between life and death, Mia must choose between returning to pick up the pieces of her shattered existence or simply letting it all go, slipping into the radiant light that beckons her.

“Isn’t it amazing how life is one thing and then, in an instant, it becomes something else””

Scripted by Shauna Cross (“Whip It”) from Gayle Forman’s best-selling 2009 novel, it’s directed by documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler (“The September Issue”), making his motion picture debut.  In Cutler’s adaptation, Mia’s in a state of limbo; her dilemma evolves through a series of flashbacks that reveal not only her deep, abiding love for her family but also her anguished conflict between pursuing her musical ambition and her desire be with the man she adores.

While Chloe Grace Moretz (“Let Me In,” “Carrie”) wrestles with raw, soul-searching, chemistry spikes with hunky Jamie Blackley. But it’s Stacy Keach, as Mia’s grandfather, who delivers the most memorable performance, delivering a subtly haunting hospital-bedside speech.

FYI: Alisa Weilerstein did the cello playing – and her overcoming-adversity story is also fascinating (http://www.opus3artists.com/artists/alisa-weilerstein)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “If I Stay” is a poignant, sensitive 7 – a tension-filled tearjerker which should satisfy its intended audience.