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“The Good Lie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Good Lie” (Warner Bros.)

 

Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”) stars as a smart ‘n’ sassy employment agency counselor who is assigned to find jobs for three of the Lost Boys of Sudan when they arrive in the United States. They’re among the 100,000 orphaned children who walked nearly a thousand miles, without food or shelter, to escape the civil war in sub-Saharan Africa in 1983.

Resembling the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of The Lost Boys of Sudan,” the prologue introduces six youngsters who survived the brutal massacre of their village. Because their parents were killed, they joined together, forming a tribal unit, as they made their way on foot to a refugee camp in Kenya.  Miraculously, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Mamere’s sister Abital (Kuoth Weil) endured.  After spending 13 years in the Kakuma refugee camp, the three young men are dispatched to Kansas City, while Abital is sent to live with a foster family in Boston.  Scared and distraught at being separated, they’re met at the Missouri airport by feisty Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), who realizes she has to teach them about basic American technology: how to work light switches, electrical appliances and the telephone. Only with her help can they can acclimate to this challenging, often bewildering new culture – and, as a result, her life, too, is inevitably changed.

One scene is indelible: when deeply spiritual Jeremiah quits his job at a supermarket after his boss orders him to discard ‘expired’ produce, rather than give it to a needy woman for her hungry family.

Inspired by real events, it’s been fictionalized by screenwriter Margaret Nagle (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) and directed by French Canadian Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazar”), who felt it was imperative to cast from within the displaced Sudanese community in the U.S. and U.K. Indeed, these young actors deliver a unique authenticity to their touching, transformative struggle.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Good Lie” is a sensitive, sincere 6, an inspiring, redemptive tale of courage and compassion.

“The Equalizer”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Equalizer” (Sony/Columbia Pictures)

 

Denzel Washington still has star power. That’s the only explanation for the surge at the box-office when this grisly, gruesome, ultra-violent thriller first opened.

It begins with a quote from Mark Twain: “The most important days in your life are the day you were born and they day you find out why.”  Then introduces quiet widower Robert McCall (Washington), who works as a manager at a Home Depot-like, super-hardware store in Boston, where he mentors a younger employee (Johnny Skourtis) who wants to be a security guard. McCall is a loner, eating and drinking tea in his usual booth at a local diner while he reads literary classics by Hemingway and Cervantes. One night, he strikes up a conversation with teenage Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Russian-born hooker who is being terrorized by menacing mobsters. What she doesn’t realize is that McCall is The Equalizer, a justice-obsessed, former CIA-operative who comes to the aid of those who cannot help themselves. After McCall single-handedly dispatches the crime syndicate with aplomb, Moscow oligarch Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich), sends retribution in the form of Teddy (Martin Csokas), a ‘fixer’ who – years ago – ruthlessly murdered his adoptive parents. Much of Teddy’s torso is covered with a demonic tattoo and to call him misogynistic is an understatement. In one agonizingly lengthy scene, he strangles another prostitute who tried to help Teri. Can McCall vanquish this sadistic psychopath, along with a pack of corrupt cops? That’s the question.

Tracing its antecedents back to a ‘80s CBS-TV series starring Edward Woodward as the vigilante, it’s predictably scripted by Richard Wenk (“The Mechanic,” “The Expendables 2”) and directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “Training Day”), who relishes the carnage.  Running 131 minutes, this crime drama feels far too long, but Denzel Washington consistently plumbs the depths of McCall’s character and there are relevant cameos by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Equalizer” is a formulaic 5, as Denzel Washington challenges Liam Neeson as the new aging action hero.

“Tracks”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tracks” (The Weinstein Company)

 

“I just want to be by myself,” says adventurous, 27 year-old Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) when she’s asked why she wants to walk 1,700 miles from the remote northern Australian outpost of Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean on the Western Coast. Disenchanted with so-called civilized society, she spent nine months trekking in battered tennis shoes – with only her black Labrador Diggity and a quartet of nasty, serenely unpredictable camels for company.

Adapted by Marion Nelson from Robyn Davidson’s international best-seller and directed by John Curran (“Praise,” “We Don’t Live here Anymore,” “The Painted Veil”), it’s a ploddingly paced, episodic journey of endurance and self-discovery that begins early in 1977 and lasts nine months.  Robyn’s disenchantment with people includes American photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), whom she grudgingly allows to join her occasionally at pre-arranged points, since that’s part of her contract with National Geographic magazine, which is financing her trip. Despite his occasional insensitivity, Rick’s enthusiasm and kindness are contagious, as Robyn gradually discovers.

Robyn also befriends Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma), an Aboriginal elder who imparts regional wisdom as they walk through sacred sites, and he serves as a buffer between her and some intrusive followers. Through her interactions with him, the racial prejudice and callous discrimination against the indigenous population that was rampant throughout Australian culture for so many years becomes obvious.

Propelling the picture almost singlehandedly, Mia Wasikowska  (“Stoker,” “Jane Eyre”), who was born in Canberra, embodies the compelling, ferociously capable Aussie heroine, while director of photography Mandy Walker (“Australia”) deftly captures the rugged, sun-scorched imagery and shimmering, empty stillness of South Australia and the Northern Territory.

As Robyn Davidson wrote, “I love the desert and its incomparable sense of space. I enjoy being with the Aborigines and learning from them. I like the freedom of being on my own, and I like the growth and learning processes that develop from taking chances.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tracks” is an exhausting, exhilarating 7, an inspirational saga.

“This Is Where I Leave You”

Susan Granger’s review of “This Is Where I Leave You” (Warner Bros.)

 

Boasting a star-studded cast, this dysfunctional family dramedy finds adult siblings forced to reunite as they mourn their recently deceased father. Predictably, old tensions flare up amid rampant regrets.

Shortly after Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) discovers his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard), he’s informed that his father has died and he’s expected to sit ‘shiva’ at their Westchester County home. (In Jewish tradition, ‘shiva’ is a seven-day period of grieving.)  Trying to hide his own problems, he suddenly finds himself embroiled with his sister-in-law Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who is married to his older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and desperately trying to get pregnant. Meanwhile, his stoner younger brother, Philip (Adam Driver), unexpectedly shows up with a much-older girl-friend, Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton), who looks startlingly like Hilary Altman (Jane Fonda), the WASPy matriarch who happens to be a renowned child psychologist. Judd’s only confidante is his bossy sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), who is still guiltily conflicted by her past relationship with a brain-injured neighbor, Horry Cullen (Timothy Olyphant). And to compound Judd’s melancholic confusion, he is suddenly confronted with the romantic availability of a former flame, ice-skater Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), just as Quinn arrives unexpectedly to try to patch things up.

Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his rueful best-seller, it’s directed by Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”), who filmed it in a real house on suburban Long Island, New York. The ensemble cast struggles valiantly to rise above what amounts to a simplified, sitcom version of “August: Osage County,” revealing one unhappy secret after another.  But, alas, they stumble over the emotional baggage that lurks around every corner. Not one character has depth, including Judd, who maintains, “I don’t do complicated.” They’re all sappy stereotypes, relating to each other’s foibles with clichés and only a few shreds of authenticity.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “This Is Where I Leave You” is an implausibly exaggerated 5, wasting the efforts of so many talented people.

Steve Solomon’s one-man show at Foxwoods

Susan Granger’s review of Steve Solomon’s show and evening at Foxwoods Resort & Casino

 

Forget about driving to Atlantic City or flying to Las Vegas, Foxwoods delivers it all – right here in Connecticut.  Conveniently located off I-95, the Northeast’s largest resort casino offers not only superb accommodations and excellent dining but also top-notch entertainment.

Like Steve Solomon’s “My Mother’s Jewish, My Father’s Italian and I am in Therapy” – in which comedian Solomon regales the audience for 90 minutes with hilarious ethnic stories about his fractured family while he’s ostensibly waiting in his therapist’s office. At the end of WWII, his Jewish GI father brought home an Italian war bride, but the two families never got over the culturally mixed-marriage. This one-man show ran for two years in New York, which is not surprising since he riffs on his Brooklyn roots and life as a physics teacher on Long Island. Now, Solomon’s touring the United States. Clad informally in a blazer, he artfully involves spectators as he jokes about his increasingly deaf parents, his chain-smoking sister and terminally stupid cousin, while doing vocal imitations of each of these characters, as well as sound effects.  His receptive audience convulses with laughter.

But before heading to see whoever’s headlining at the Fox Theater, be sure to schedule a sumptuous dinner at Cedars Steak House, where Mark can regale you with his up-close-and-personal Sinatra stories while Shawn supervises the impeccable staff. Entrees include delicious double-cut Colorado lamb chops with fresh herb demi-glace (which we had), an array of seafood, including Maine lobsters, along with steaks and prime rib. Cedars is the perfect place for a family gathering or to celebrate a special occasion.

If you’re staying at the impressive Grand Pequot Tower, your car will be whisked away to free valet parking while you’re greeted by a friendly front desk attendant. The reasonably priced rooms and bathrooms are spacious and scrupulously clean, offering a breath-taking panorama of the surrounding forest.  You have free access to a well-equipped gym and pool, and you can choose from an array of luxurious spa treatments.  The Foxwoods Rewards Card enables you to earn points while playing your favorite slot machine and table game, including Bingo, Keno, Poker or Race Book. The only downside is the smoke-filled air. While we slept comfortably on a non-smoking floor, Foxwoods’ many gaming casinos reek with cigarette smoke, including the so-called smoke-free Rainmaker casino, which is only open on weekends.

Foxwoods is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, a native Algonquin people known for their tenacity and spirit of survival in southeastern Connecticut.

 

“A Walk Among the Tombstones”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Walk Among the Tombstones” (Universal Pictures)

 

Mystery novelist Lawrence Block’s world-weary detective Matthew Scudder comes to the silver screen, capably embodied by Liam Neeson (“Taken,” “Unknown,” “Non-Stop”) in an obvious attempt to start a new film franchise.

The prologue, set in 1991, establishes Scudder as a former NYC cop, a recovering alcoholic who gave up booze after a shootout went tragically awry. By 1999, Scudder has become an unlicensed investigator, noting: “I do favors for people….in return, they give me gifts.”

Recruited by Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), a recovering junkie, Scudder reluctantly takes a case involving Peter’s drug-dealing brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), whose wife was kidnapped and killed, despite his having paid a $400,000 ransom.  After another female victim is discovered, dismembered in Brooklyn’s historic Greenwood Cemetery, and the daughter of a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roche) is taken hostage, the trail leads to a pair of sadistic serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) who purposely target someone related to a criminal so the police won’t be summoned. After questioning the graveyard’s creepy groundskeeper (Olafur Darri Olafsson), Scudder pursues the culprits with the help of a young apprentice, TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless black teenager who wants to be private eye.

Adapted and directed by Scott Frank (“Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “The Lookout”), this grimly intense thriller alternates between long, talky interludes during which little happens and sequences of such explicit, horrific violence that they border on gruesome pornography.  Adding insult to injury, during the final credits, there’s a notice from the American Humane Society that no animals were harmed in any of the scenes.

Not surprisingly, Liam Neeson captures technophobic Scudder’s moody melancholy, but this marks a complete career departure for Dan Stevens, best known as the late Matthew Crowley on TV’s “Downton Abbey.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a fierce, ferocious 5, filled with offensive scenes depicting graphic torture and grisly mutilation of women.

“The Boxtrolls”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boxtrolls” (Focus Features)

 

Like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” this quirky concept emanates from Laika animation studio in Oregon, where hand-drawn images are meticulously integrated with RP (rapid prototyping) and CG (computer-generated) pictures. Their painstaking stop-motion process consists of filming frame-by-frame (movies use 24 frames per second) while subtly controlling the characters, props, sets, etc. And when using 3D, each frame is manipulated twice. Eventually, the thousands of photographed frames are artfully edited and projected together sequentially, making the characters come to life.

Set in a Dickensian city called Cheesebridge, the grotesque and somewhat convoluted story revolves around an orphaned 11 year-old (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) who was lovingly raised by tiny, timid creatures called Boxtrolls who dwell beneath the cobblestone streets, speak unintelligibly and wear cardboard boxes that double as hiding places when they’re scared. He wears a box labelled Eggs, which has become his name. Boxtrolls are terrified of an obsessively aspiring aristocrat, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who is determined to capture each and every one of them so he can qualify for a coveted White Hat. Envious, socially ambitious Snatcher has convinced Cheesebridge’s gullible citizens that Boxtrolls are dangerous which is obviously not true. Then one day when Eggs ventures out, he’s spotted by foolishly snobbish Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter, Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning), who’s curious about who he is and where he comes from.

Adapted by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava from Alan Snow’s novel “Here be Monsters!,” it’s subversively propelled by directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, along with producer/lead animator Travis Knight, director of photography John Ashlee Prat, production designer Paul Lasaine, editor Edie Ichioka and composer Dario Marianelli. Through their collaborative efforts, fun abounds – along with surprisingly sophisticated humor. The inventive, imaginative visuals are weirdly wonderful and the voices expressive, including Simon Pegg, Jared Harris, Toni Collette, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan and Nick Frost as supporting characters.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Boxtrolls” is a spooky, surreal 7, an emotionally resonant, steampunk fantasy – with a deliciously droll sequence during the end credits.

“My Old Lady”

Susan Granger’s review of “My Old Lady” (Cohen Media Group)

 

At age 75, prolific playwright Israel Horovitz makes his feature film directing debut with this adaptation of his own 2002 play about a thrice-divorced, almost-60 year-old, recovering alcoholic from New York who inherits an apartment in Paris from his late father – from whom he was long estranged.

When Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) arrives on the premises, he discovers the dilapidated,  two-story abode with its own walled garden is occupied by Madame Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), a tart, 92 year-old Englishwoman, who has been a tenant for decades, along with her caustic daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is protective to the point of hostility. Because of a bizarre French real estate custom called “viager,” Mathilde can legally stay there as long as she lives and even collect monthly payments from the rightful owner (like a reverse mortgage.) Penniless Mathias was planning to raise 12 million Euros by selling the place. That provokes quite a dilemma for all concerned, particularly when long-buried family secrets become unearthed. To complicate matters in this angst-riddled, emotional journey, a sleazy French real-estate developer wants to transform the entire apartment complex into a luxury hotel.

Combining droll humor with dialogue-heavy melodrama, Israel Horovitz admittedly drew from his own life experience, including the emotional debris of an abusive childhood, failed romances and death. His casting is spot-on.  Seduced my Madame Girard’s abundant wine cellar and eschewing any pretense of subtlety, Kevin Kline’s cranky Mathias soon falls off-the-wagon, spouting self-pitying soliloquies and making declarations like, “I was born with a silver knife in my back.”  Far less forbidding than her Lady Violet Crawley on TV’s “Downton Abbey,” Maggie Smith oozes irresistible vulnerability, even while jousting in verbal sparring matches, and impressively bilingual Kristin Scott-Thomas is engagingly conflicted.

FYI: Israel Horovitz has had more than 70 plays produced in the United States and 50 of them in France.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “My Old Lady” is a cross-cultural 7, a comedic drama appealing to art house and older audiences.

“The Maze Runner”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Maze Runner” (20th Century-Fox)

 

How many dystopian, young adult survival thrillers will movie-goers support?  After “The Hunger Games” and “The Giver,” among others, that’s the question facing this screen adaptation of James Dashner’s post-apocalyptic adventure.

When Thomas (Dylan O’Brien from TV’s “Teen Wolf”) wakes up, he discovers he’s trapped in a caged elevator known as the Box.  He has no memory of his past and does not know why he’s being deposited in an idyllic Glade with about 50 other teenage boys who have formed their own highly organized, structured society.  The Glade is surrounded by a massive, concrete wall with only one opening. That huge door leads to a vast, multi-sectioned, ever-changing maze through which the boys are expected to run each day.  Being trapped in the labyrinth is usually fatal, since menacing, bio-mechanical, spider-like creatures called Grievers roam at night; yet, a Griever’s sting can bring back memories from the past.  Alby (Ami Ameen) is the runners’ leader, while Gally (Will Poulter) is the scowling, security-minded bully. Mincho (Ki Hong Lee) is a veteran runner, along with second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and chubby Chuck (Blake Cooper).  Then, suddenly, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), “the last ever,” is brought to their encampment, and Thomas discovers that they have a telepathic link.  If the Ending is near, can they find their way out? And what’s the purpose of WCKD, the mysterious organization of Creators led by Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) that has trapped them in this bizarre, coming-of-age social experiment?

Evoking memories of the tribal savagery of “Lord of the Flies,” it’s adapted by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin and directed by Wes Ball, best known for his short 2012 film “Ruin,” exploring James Dashner’s high-concept themes, including the importance of friendship, ingenuity, bravery and persistence. Problem is: there’s no real resolution, only a set-up for the sequel, “The Scorch Trials,” which is already in pre-production.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Maze Runner” is a frantic yet utterly familiar, fantasy 5, filled with sci-fi twists and turns.

“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.