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“The Humbling”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Humbling” (Millennium Entertainment)

 

Sometimes two artists work on the same idea at the same time: one succeeds, the other fails.

When Barry Levinson was adapting Philip Roth’s 2009 penultimate novel about the angst of an aging actor, I suspect he had no idea Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was making “Birdman.”

But he was. And Michael Keaton’s performance will be remembered, while Al Pacino’s probably will not.

Quoting Oscar Levant’s observation, “There’s a thin line between genius and insanity,” Pacino plays 67 year-old Simon Axler, who loses his grip on reality during a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” deliberately taking a face-first dive into the orchestra pit.

Recuperating at a psychiatric hospital, he’s approached by another patient, Sybil (Nina Arianda), who caught her wealthy husband is sexually abusing their young daughter. Having seen Simon play a murderer on-screen, she wants to hire Simon to kill him.

When Simon’s released, he retreats to find solace at his bucolic Connecticut home. But the peace-of-mind he’s looking for is shattered by the sudden appearance of Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the thirty-something daughter of old friends (Dianne Wiest, Dan Hedaya), along with persistent Sybil.

Though Pegeen claims to be a lesbian, she flirts outrageously with Simon, winding up in bed with him, much to the chagrin of two of her former lovers (Kyra Sedgwick, Billy Porter), who are stalking her, and bewilderment of Simon’s loyal housekeeper (Mary Louise Wilson).

Al Pacino is the embodiment of a despairing, self-absorbed performer who cannot separate art from life, a concept that’s amplified by meetings with his agent (Charles Grodin) and Skype sessions with his psychiatrist (Dylan Baker).

Shot in 20 days in and around Barry Levinson’s Fairfield County estate, it’s unevenly scripted by Buck Henry (“The Graduate”) and Michal Zebede and indulgently directed by Levinson.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Humbling” is an awkwardly sexist, tragi-comedic 3, serving – at best – as eccentric Pacino’s inventively off-beat master class in acting.

“Two Days, One Night”

Susan Granger’s review of “Two Days, One Night” (Sundance Selects)

 

There’s so much suspense in the Dardenne brothers’ affecting drama – for which Marion Cotillard has been Oscar-nominated as Best Actress – that it’s tempting to call it a socio-economic thriller.

Set a working-class community in the filmmakers’ native Belgium, it revolves around a stressed-out wife/mother who tries to persuade her factory co-workers to forgo bonuses in order to get her job back.

Recently returned from medical leave during which she was treated for depression, Sandra Bya (Cotillard) discovers that her place at the solar-panel company has been eliminated.

In her absence, the company offered her 16 co-workers a choice: if her job is eliminated, each of them will receive a bonus of 1,000 Euros (approx. $1,200). If they agree to give up the bonus, she can return.  A vote has already been taken but Sandra’s friend convinces the boss to hold another vote on Monday.

Encouraged by her stolid, supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra must track down and visit her cash-strapped colleagues, hoping to save her job. Will a majority agree to make the personal sacrifice on her behalf?

Embodying weary, worried Sandra, Marion Cotillard (Oscar-winner as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”) radiates tearful anxiety, swallowing her pride (along with large quantities of Xanax), pleading for her peers’ pity and grasping at each shred of hope during the weekend-long crusade.

Filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Rosetta,” “The Son,” “The Kid with a Bike”) are renowned for their austere neo-realism, having twice won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. In this case, they detail the emotional impact of each encounter, as several of Sandra’s downtrodden colleagues explain how desperately they need the additional 1,000 Euros for school tuition and home repairs.

In French with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Two Days, One Night” is a compassionate 8, posing an intriguing ethical dilemma.

“Cake”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cake” (Cinelou Releasing)

 

Two things to be learned from this half-baked, low-budget melodrama: 1) Jennifer Aniston has the best pop-culture publicist in Hollywood, and 2) There’s such a shortage of top-tier roles for women that she’s been catapulted onto the Awards circuit.

Suffering chronic pain, cranky Claire Simmons (Aniston) is first seen as part of a support group, led by Annette (Felicity Huffman), who encourages everyone to express their feelings about the suicide of a fellow member named Nina (Anna Kendrick).

“’Way to go, Nina,” Claire caustically declares – after describing Nina’s plunge off a Los Angeles freeway onto the top of a flatbed truck headed for Mexico.

Acerbic, pill-popping Claire has anesthetized herself from the world since the automobile accident that scarred her, alienated her husband (Chris Messina) and killed their young son.

Wallowing in misery, perpetually scowling Claire is asked if she really wants to recover by her perceptive physical therapist (Mamie Gummer).

When Claire starts hallucinating about Nina, she invents a phony pretext to seek out Nina’s grieving widower, Roy (Sam Worthington), who’s been left with a young son, and a bizarre friendship slowly develops.

Deliberately un-glamorous with stringy, unwashed hair and scars on her face and body, Aniston epitomizes drab, dowdy and depressed.  Yet she’s also privileged, living in a hilltop home with a swimming pool and devotedly cared for by her long-suffering Mexican housekeeper, Silvana (Oscar-nominated Adriana Barraza from “Babel”).

According to an NY Times interview, Aniston stopped exercising, gained weight, and went without make-up for the role. Her research included interviewing her friend/stunt double Stacy Courtney, whose leg was mangled by a boat propeller, forcing her to endure several painful surgeries and a grueling regimen of physical therapy.

Formulaically written Patrick Tobin and subtly directed by Daniel Barnz, this is the first film from one-time Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton’s indie label Cinelou Releasing – with contrived cameos from William H. Macy and Lucy Punch.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Cake” is a flaky 5. Pass up this underwhelming confection.

 

“The Wedding Ringer”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Wedding Ringer” (Screen Gems/Sony Entertainment)

 

As his wedding to Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) draws close, financially successful tax attorney Doug Harris (Josh Gad) realizes he, literally, has no close friends to be groomsmen, escorting the seven bridesmaids down the aisle.

In desperation, he turns to Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart), a professional Best Man for help. Predictably, the buddy-for-hire turns into a bromance, as Jimmy’s companionship changes Doug’s nerdy life.

The best parts are in the Coming Attractions trailer, like when Doug first views his prospective groomsmen, noting that they resemble “The Goonies, all grown-up and turned into rapists.” And a disastrous pre-nuptial dinner party during which “Granny” Cloris Leachman catches on fire.

Jeremy Gerelick makes his directing debut, working from a hackneyed, stereotypical script he wrote, years ago, with Jay Lavender, his collaborator on “The Break-Up,” it’s a simple premise that begs the basic question: How did socially awkward Doug win Gretchen’s heart?

Unable to otherwise elicit laughter from contrived jokes about rape and child molestation, Gerelick encourages motormouth’d Kevin Hart (“Ride Along”) to use profuse profanity and stages raunchy, degenerate bachelor-party hijinks with a pseudo-Russian stripper who smears peanut butter on Doug’s private parts and brings in a beagle as a perverse “service dog.”

In addition to humiliating Cloris Leachman, Garelick wastes the talents of Ken Howard, Mimi Rogers and Olivia Thirby, cast as Gretchen’s family. And if Josh Gad’s voice sounds familiar, he was Olaf in Disney’s popular “Frozen.”

FYI: You may notice the now-defunct Miramax logo, so here’s the story. Written back in 2002, the screenplay was stored in a New Jersey warehouse with 18,000 boxes of detritus when Disney sold Miramax to a financial consortium in 2010.

In 2011, producer Adam Fields acquired the rights to mine unproduced Miramax properties, including this, which was initially titled “The Golden Tux.” It was originally intended for Vince Vaughn, who opted to star in “Wedding Crashers” (2005) instead.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Wedding Ringer” fumbles with an un-funny 3. Decline to attend.

“Paddington”

Susan Granger’s review of “Paddington” (Dimension Films/StudioCanal)

 

Beginning with an old black-and-white newsreel prologue, set in Peru, this is the sweetly playful story of a plucky, young orphaned bear poignantly searching for a friendly face in London’s Paddington Station.

That’s where he’s first spotted by the Brown family, returning home from a holiday. Kindly Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) is immediately smitten by the fretful, forlorn fellow, while her husband (Hugh Bonneville) and children (Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin) are less enamored. Only elderly Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) seems to realize that they need Paddington as much as he needs them.

Naming the rambunctious bear Paddington after the train station, the family soon comes to appreciate not only his orange marmalade addiction but also his comic misadventures, even as they endeavor to find the British explorer who, years ago, visited “Darkest Peru” and befriended Paddington’s ursine family in the rainforest.

But anthropomorphic Paddington has also attracted the attention of scheming taxidermist Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), who is determined to add him to her Natural History Museum collection.

Adapted from Michael Bond’s “A Bear Called Paddington” (1958) by Hamish McColl and writer/director Paul King, it seamlessly combines live-action with superbly fluid CGI from London’s Framestore.  As itinerant street buskers, a five-piece calypso band is a unifying device, while an attic dollhouse magically reveals the family-at-home.

Voicing impeccably polite Paddington is Ben Whishaw, who played “Q” in “Skyfall.”  Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”) is engaging, while Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) is skeptical. The new “Dr. Who” Time Lord Peter Capaldi plays a nosy neighbor, Matt “Little Britain” Lucas is a cab driver, and Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent is the German antiques dealer who identifies Paddington’s explorer’s hat.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Paddington” is an engaging, enchanting 8. It’s a charming, compassionate family film.

“Selma”

Susan Granger’s review of “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Ava DuVernay’s film about the voting-rights struggle of 1965 is not only timely but relevant, given the continuing racial turmoil over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

The historical drama begins with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, then meeting in the Oval Office with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), whom he urges to support passage of a national Voting Rights Act.

To underscore the need for change in March, 1965, Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership advisors travel to Selma, Alabama, for a peaceful, non-violent protest – then boldly march 50 miles from Selma to the state’s capital of Montgomery.

Stressing that raising white America’s consciousness is as crucial as organizing black communities, King outlines his three principles of protest: “Negotiate, demonstrate, resist.”

Hideous brutality erupts. Opposition comes not only from Sheriff Jim Clark (Tim Houston) and his posse on the Edmund Pettus Bridge but also Alabama’s contemptible Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Determined to discourage King by monitoring his movements and disrupting his marriage to Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) leaks secret F.B.I. recordings of King’s adulterous liaisons.

First-time screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay  (“Middle of Nowhere,” “I Will Follow”) ambitiously condense years of anecdotal history into solemn, yet stirring expository dialogue and introduce supporting characters whose specific purpose is to embody differing points-of-view.  Co-producer Oprah Winfrey plays an elderly churchwoman unable to register to vote.

So it’s David Oyelowo’s powerful, provocative portrayal that electrifies.  Born in Oxford, England, to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo astutely reflects Dr. King’s oratorical cadence and canny political strategy. Had Dr. King not been assassinated in 1968, just three years after the Selma march, he would have been 86 on January 16.

As for the controversy over the depiction of President Johnson, it’s not unusual; debates about historical accuracy also plagued Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Selma” is an inspiring, impassioned 8, delivering Dr. King’s reverberating message of perseverance.

“Taken 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “Taken 3” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Liam Neeson returns as former CIA operative Bryan Mills in this third segment in the action-packed franchise.

Set in pedestrian Los Angeles, rather than exotic Istanbul or Paris, it begins with a cold-blooded murder, as heavily tattooed Russian mobsters execute an innocent accountant because they’re owed money and there’s none in his boss’s safe.

At the same time, Bryan Mills is visited by his angst-riddled ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), whose marriage to wealthy Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott) is floundering. Shortly afterwards, Lenore’s body is found in Mills’ bed – with her throat cut. And Mills is the primary suspect.

Determined to protect his now-college age daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and track down Lenore’s killer, Mills goes “down the rabbit hole,” dodging the LAPD, led by Detective Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker).

Illogically scripted by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson and directed by Olivier Megaton (“Transporter 3,” “Colombiana”), it lacks the essential ingredients that propelled the first two thrillers: namely, a persuasive plot and the compelling need for an anguished, aging, perennially pursued father  with a “particular set of skills” to rescue a kidnapped member of his family.

What it offers, instead, is a domestic melodrama punctuated by discordant series of screeching, seemingly endless car chases, careening around the Southern California freeways. It seems obvious from the getgo who the villain is, so there’s little surprise when his culpability is revealed.

Unexpectedly transformed into a middle-aged action hero back in 2009, 6’4” Liam Neeson has emerged as the craggy, Celtic John Wayne of his generation.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Taken 3” is a tediously trifling 3, laying generic groundwork for Mills’ grandchild to be kidnapped if and when there’s another installment.

“Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death”

Susan Granger’s review of “Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” (Relativity Media/Hammer Films)

 

Back in 2012, when Daniel Radcliffe chose to play the widowed Edwardian solicitor Arthur Kipps in the original “Woman in Black” as his breakout role after Harry Potter, it sparked inordinate interest in the psychological horror thriller. Its pedestrian sequel not only lacks Radcliffe but also the terror factor.

During Germany’s WWII bombing of London in 1941, caretakers are charged with escorting a group of children out of the war-torn city and into the safety of the countryside. They take refuge in the eerie, isolated Eel Marsh House that happens to be haunted by the vengeful, darkly veiled, titular female.

Much to the consternation of prim schoolteacher Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), the sinister apparition soon becomes obsessed with stalking shy, young Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), whose parents were killed in the Blitz. As a result of that trauma, he’s become mute, unable to scream when the menacing, malevolent spirit appears.

Riffing off a 1983 novella by British horror author Susan Hill, screenwriter Jon Croker and director Tom Harper toss in more convoluted plot points, like the ghostly Woman’s complicated backstory, a stern headmistress (Helen McCrory), a local doctor (Adrian Rawlins), and a fearful RAF pilot, Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), who is struggling with cowardice.

It’s unfortunate that cinematographer George Steel’s spooky sequences feature shaky, jump scares that are ominously punctuated by the creepy, predictable sound track.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” is a feeble 4, concluding with a scene that suggests that a third installment may be on its way.

“Still Alice”

Susan Granger’s review of “Still Alice” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Julianne Moore elevates this sensitive chronicle of a woman’s descent into the oblivion of Alzheimer’s. From her midnight panics to her courageous struggle, Moore’s restrained, delicately nuanced performance scorches with ferocious intensity.

Brilliant, beautiful, 50 year-old Alice Howland (Moore) is a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University who she suddenly starts to forget words during a lecture. She’s a dedicated jogger who then becomes confused about where she is, even though she’s in the familiar environs of Central Park.

When her neurologist diagnoses early-onset Alzheimer’s, Alice’s supportive husband John (Alec Baldwin), a research physician, is at her side. Worse yet, through further testing, Alice discovers her particular strain of the disease is genetic. That profoundly affects her grown children:  Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Tom (Hunter Parrish).

Determined to end her life when her deterioration becomes unbearable, she stores up sleeping pills, hiding them in a bureau drawer, posting a reminder on her computer.  It’s Alice’s daily struggle to stay connected when the tenuous threads are fraying that propels the tragic, character-driven plot.

Working from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have constructed a compassionate, enlightening story – that’s heightened by their own personal drama.

Mr. Glatzer and Mr. Westmoreland are married and, as they were developing this script, Glatzer was told he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s degenerative and, ultimately, fatal. That obviously gave a sense of urgency to completing this project.

“Still Alice” was made for less than $5 million and shot over 23 days in Manhattan, mostly in a brownstone on West 162nd Street that was under renovation. And the score by British composer Ilan Eshkeri is subtly unobtrusive yet evocative.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Still Alice” is a profoundly eloquent, empathetic 8. According to statistics, Alzheimer’s will affect in roughly one in 85 people, worldwide, by 2050.

 

 

“A Most Violent Year”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Most Violent Year” (A24)

 

Set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history, J.C. Chandor’s intense noir-thriller combines political intrigue with industrial corruption.

Ambitious, idealistic Hispanic immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) started as a fuel truck driver for a heating oil distributor. When he marries the mob-connected boss’s daughter Anna (Jessica Chastain) and they take over the family business, he discovers it’s not easy being honest in the crime-riddled city.

After making a deal to purchase a waterfront storage facility, Morales is faced with a series of brutal anonymous attacks, hijacking his drivers and stealing his fuel. Egged on by Anna and his lawyer (Albert Brooks), he turns to desperate measures to protect his property, his family and his chunk of the American Dream.

Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) conjures up memories of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and the scene where he explains to new salesmen how to act classy and close a deal is a gem.  There’s also a chase on an elevated train and shootout on the 59th Street Bridge between Manhattan and Queens.

Adopting a thick Brooklyn accent, Jessica Chastain is formidable foil, and the strong supporting cast includes David Oyelowo, Eyles Gabel, Alessandro Nivola and Jerry Adler.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All is Lost”) was writing the script when the tragic shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, not far from his home.

“It made me think of this idea of escalation – how in act of violence ripples on society,” he recalls. And this taut, richly atmospheric crime drama obviously takes inspiration from Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City,” also set in 1981.

Chandor’s next film tackles the explosion and sinking of the British Petroleum offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, sparking the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Most Violent Year” is a gritty, savvy 7. Impeccably crafted, it evokes a turbulent time.