Susan Granger’s review of “Out of the Furnace” (Relativity Media)
From the opening scene in which psychopathic Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) abuses his distraught date at a drive-in movie, you’re just waiting for someone to kill him.
Set in 2008 in blue-collar Braddock, Pennsylvania, the story revolves around hard-working Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a welder at the local steel mill, who has a girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), and dutifully visits his terminally ill father whenever he can. Russell is concerned about his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who has just returned from four tours of duty with the Army in Iraq and is obviously suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. When drunk driving in a fatal automobile accident sends Russell to prison for manslaughter, Lena strays and Rodney turns to bare-knuckle boxing, falling under the influence of the local bookie, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), which leads him into notoriously volatile Harlan DeGroat’s hillbilly crime ring in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains.
Despite realistic performances from an impressive, A-list cast that also includes Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard, the violent, hard-boiled drama is slow-paced and meandering, while the archetypal characters are sketchily drawn. So when calm, rational Russell suddenly turns vigilante, it feels false. In addition, since the complex concept raises timely themes about economic inequity and veterans’ issues without saying anything of substance about them, it all seems a bit pretentious.
Originally scripted by Brad Ingelsby and co-written by director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), it’s aesthetically ambitious with a hollow homage to Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (1978), also set in rural Pennsylvania, in a scene in which Bale is hunting in the forest and unable to shoot, mirroring Robert De Niro’s reaction to taking the life of a living creature. This sequence is juxtaposed with another that exploits human brutality. But adroit editing seems wasted here, along with Masanobu Takayanagi’s stark cinematography and Dickon Hinchliffe’s evocative score.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Out of the Furnace” is a dark, tedious, dour 4, a melancholy, depressing dirge centered on the contemporary decay and decline of the American Dream.
Susan Granger’s review of “Sunlight Jr.” (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Occasionally there are films that are so unrelentingly bleak and grim that you wonder why they were made in the first place; this is one of them.
Living in a shabby motel in working-class, central Florida, Melissa (Naomi Watts) is a cashier at the convenience store that gives the movie its title. She oves Richie (Matt Dillon), a former TV repairman who has been confined to a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident left his legs paralyzed. While they barely subsist on her minimum-wage paycheck and his meagre disability benefits, they relish their frequent sexual interludes, along with drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes.
Among their many problems, Melissa’s menacing ex-boyfriend, Justin (Norman Reedus), still stalks her. She can’t avoid him entirely because he’s an intimidating landlord to her alcoholic mother (Tess Harper), whose bedbug-infested house is overflowing with foster children. Adding to her angst, Melissa discovers she’s pregnant; while they’d love to get married and have a baby, they certainly cannot afford to support one. More complications arise when Melissa’s abusive, bullying boss, Edwin (Antoni Corone), tells her she has to take the ‘graveyard shift,’ risking rape and robbery. Pressures continue to mount as they get evicted and their situation grows more and more intolerable.
Inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed,” which chronicled America’s working-class poor, it’s written and directed by Laurie Collyer (“Sherrybaby”). According to the production notes, Ms. Collyer is attempting to evoke what she calls “the shattered American dream.” Supporting
her assertions, a recent study revealed that one-in-six Americans now live in
Unfortunately, two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts (“The Impossible,” “21 Grams”) is far too regal and refined to be even remotely convincing as having lived very long in this bleak cycle of scarcity and, while Oscar-nominee Matt Dillon (“Crash”) nails Richie’s frustration and rage, he too seems way out of his element.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sunlight Jr.” is a sobering, depressing, tedious 3, filled with far too much unresolved adversity and overwhelming despair to be recommended as ‘entertainment.’
Susan Granger’s review of “Black Nativity” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
In a bold, contemporary adaptation of Langston Hughes’ 1961 gospel music oratorio, this holiday musical/melodrama follows Langston (R&B pop star Jacob Latimore), a wary, street-wise teen from inner-city Baltimore, who has been raised by his embittered single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson). Faced with eviction, recently laid-off Naima puts Langston on a bus to New York City so that he can celebrate the holidays with the grandparents he’s never met: proud, eloquent Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his supportive wife Aretha (Angela Bassett). Led into temptations in Harlem, rebellious, conflicted Langston connects with Loot (Tyrese Gibson), a local hustler whom he meets in jail, and embarks on a revelatory, redemptive journey during which, along with new friends and a little divine intervention, he discovers the true meaning of family, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Writer/director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” Talk to Me”) was working on this project as she was grieving over the death of her beloved sister, so she says the theme about questioning faith was particularly apt for her. Drawing from the black experience with quotations from Langston Hughes’ poetry, the story recasts the classic Nativity tale with black performers who sing traditional hymns and folk spirituals like “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” along with original songs like Jennifer Hudson’s “Test of Faith.”
In a dream sequence set in Times Square, Ms. Lemmons envisions Mary and Joseph as a homeless, pregnant couple (Grace Gibson, Luke James) singing “Silent Night.” Nasir Jones (a.k.a. rapper Nas) plays the street prophet Isiah, Vondie Curtis-Hall is a streetwise pawnbroker who says he knew Langston’s dad, and Mary J. Blige is an Angelic parishioner at Cobbs’ Holy Resurrection Baptist Church. This African-American interpretation is punctuated by hip-hop riffs, composed by Raphael Saadiq, who wrote the score with Laura Karpman, choreographed by Otis Sallid, costumed by Gersha Phillips, and photographed by Anastos Michos.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Black Nativity” is an inspirational, sincerely spiritual 6, turning the movie theater into a church and preaching to the choir.
Susan Granger’s review of “The Christmas Candle” (EchoLight Studios)
Set in the 1890s in England, this fable revolves around a young, progressive preacher who questions his faith and finds his devotion renewed by a holiday miracle.
When Rev. David Richmond (Hans Matheson) is recruited to come to the tiny town of Gladbury, he discovers that his parishioners believe that, every 25 years, an angel-blessed Christmas candle will create a miracle for whomever lights it with a prayer on Christmas Eve. His skepticism alienates not only the Old World candle maker (former “Dr. Who” Sylvester McCoy) and his wife (Lesley Melville) but also most of the villagers. His only ally seems to be feisty Emily Barstow (Samantha Barks). Determined to prove that kindness and good deeds, not alleged miracles, bring humans closer to Jesus Christ, he delivers Advent sermons and sets a Christian example by helping neighbors with chores and home repairs. But in an attempt to modernize Gladbury, he takes pride in installing new-fangled electric light bulbs in the church, which leads to unexpected consequences.
Adapted by Candace Lee and Eric Newman from a book by Texas Pastor Max Lucado and directed by John Stephenson, it’s muddled and emotionally sterile, lacking mysticism, mystery and magic. Since Stephenson is former vice president/creative supervisor of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the special effects of the angel’s visitation are imaginative.
While “Britain’s Got Talent”/two-time Grammy nominee Susan Boyle appears briefly – albeit awkwardly – as the church warden’s wife, singing “Miracle Hymn,” it is charming Susan Barks, familiar as lovelorn Eponine in last year’s “Les Miserables,” who is most memorable as the sassy shopgirl.
FYI: Former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum is CEO of EchoLight Studios, which distributes faith-based films like this. A social conservative, Santorum has
criticized Hollywood, noting, “The devil for a long, long time has had these screens for his playground.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Christmas Candle” is a flickering 5, not even remotely comparable to traditional Christmas classics like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Going My
Susan Granger’s review of “Inside Llewyn Davis” (CBS Films)
Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have concocted a droll, darkly sardonic comedy, pivoting on the sweet desperation of one week in the life of a folksinger in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961.
Ever since he left the Merchant Marines, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has been trying to earn a living as a musician, but it just isn’t working out for him. Homeless, he often sleeps on a sofa at the Garfeins, bohemian academics (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett) who live near Columbia University. One day, when leaving their apartment, their cat escapes, igniting a series of escapades, leading Llewyn back to MacDougall Steet, where he also crashes with Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) Berkey, but there are alienating complications inherent in that relationship. So, toting his guitar, Llewyn takes off on an ill-fated road trip to Chicago with two strangers (Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman), to audition for a music manager (F. Murray Abraham). As is often the case, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.
The Coen brothers (“True Grit,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) create an irritable, eccentric central character whose choices are relentlessly self defeating, resulting in unrelenting misery. Half-Guatemalan/half-Cuban, Miami-raised Oscar Isaac is superb as the surly, self-sabotaging misanthropist, revealing a silky voice as he sings soulful songs in the Gaslight Cafe, hoping – in vain – for commercial success, as Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography captures winter’s frigidity.
The terrific Americana soundtrack, recorded live and produced by T-Bone Burnett, includes “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well,” “500 Miles,” “The Death of Queen Jane” and an amusing novelty ditty, “Please Mr. Kennedy”- with nods to the Clancy Brothers, Brooklyn’s Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is an enthralling, enlightening 8, evoking Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner’s words: “I believe man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among the creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
Susan Granger’s review of “Frozen” (Walt Disney Studios)
With its 53rd feature, Walt Disney Studios has reclaimed its animation crown. And the magic begins with Lauren MacMullen’s inventive short, “Get A Horse,” featuring Walt himself doing voice-work.
In “Frozen,” Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) are fairy tale princesses, heirs to the enchanted Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle after their parents die in a shipwreck. Older Elsa was born with a scary, supernatural power to create snow and ice and, through a bizarre occurrence, has inadvertently condemned her subjects to bleak, perpetual winter. So Elsa seeks sanctuary in an Ice Palace on North Mountain. Younger Anna longs to create a thaw and reestablish the close connection with her beloved, yet estranged sister that they once shared as children. For this arduous quest, Anna teams up with a rugged mountain man Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff), his trusty reindeer Sven and an endearing, anthropomorphic, carrot-nosed snowman, Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad), who loves “warm hugs” and dreams of summer. Complicating matters are the scheming Duke of Weselton (voiced by Alan Tudyk) – which everyone pronounces “weasel-town” – and handsome but duplicitous Hans (voiced by Santino Fontana), Prince of the Southern Isles.
Based very loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” the fast-paced comedic adventure is directed by Chris Buck (“Tarzan,” “Surf’s Up”) with co-director/writer Jennifer Lee (“Wreck-It-Ralph”) and co-writer Shane Morris. Chock full of clever, contemporary gender revisions, there’s an exhilarating nod to female empowerment and awesomely gorgeous animation.
The most unexpected treat is the soaring musical score by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Broadway’s “Avenue Q” & “The Book of Mormon”). Of the eight original songs, the liberating “Let It Go” is most memorable. Composer Christophe Beck’s score includes rhythmic chanting, the Norwegian bukkehorn (ram’s horn) and Christine Hals’ high-pitched Norwegian “kulning.” Indeed, “Frozen” seems poised to become the next Disney project to transition to the Broadway stage.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Frozen” nabs a nimble 9, ready to warm even the coldest of hearts.
Susan Granger’s review of “Philomena” (The Weinstein Company)
Inspired by true events, this is the intense, chilling story of a guilt-riddled Irishwoman searching for the son that the Church stole from her a half-century before.
In Northern Ireland in 1952, when innocent, young Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was seduced at a carnival, her parents dispatched her to punitive nuns who incarcerated unwed pregnant girls in Roscrea, a slave-labor workhouse, similar to the laundry documented in “The Magdalene Sisters.” Aptly named, The Sisters of Little Mercy insisted that the “fallen girls” give birth with little or no medical assistance, claiming “Pain is their penance.” Afterwards, they were only allowed to see their tykes an hour a day. For a $1,000 donation, Catholic couples from the United States adopted the children – without their mothers’ knowledge or permission. Later, when mothers begged for information about their offspring, they were told all documentation had been lost in a fire.
Now an elderly widow, retired in Birr, Ireland, devoutly religious Philomena (Judi Dench) is determined to find her long-lost son Anthony. “I’d like to know if he thought of me,” she tells former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). “I’ve thought of him every day.”
Intrigued by the heartwarming potential of this human-interest story and bankrolled by a daily newspaper, cynical Sixsmith traces Anthony’s adoption to America and escorts congenial, relentlessly curious Philomena on a trip to Washington, D.C., a journey that proves to be revelation for both.
Adroitly balancing gentle, comedic savvy with a harrowing, horrifyingly convincing act of injustice, director Stephen Fears (“The Queen”) is blessed with a taut, witty, unsettling script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on Sixmith’s “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”
Judi Dench’s riveting, finely tuned performance is impeccably crisp, filled with feisty strength and beauty. She plays Philomena magnificently, leaving the audience in tears, while Steve Coogan personifies sharp, supercilious exasperation.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Philomena” is a poignant 9, a touching testament to the integrity of the human spirit, capturing Philomena’s eloquent faith in the essential goodness of people.
Susan Granger’s review of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (Lionsgate)
Jennifer Lawrence returns as heroic Katniss Everdeen in the second installment of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy – one that resonates even darker and more dramatic than the first.
After winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) leave family and friends for a “Victor’s Tour” of the oppressed, underprivileged districts. But first Katniss must face District 12 suitor Gale (Liam Hemsworth) now that she’s supposed to be romantically involved with Peeta. It’s a fictional liaison fostered in the Capitol by ruthlessly diabolical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who – along with wily gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – is planning the next survival-of-the-fittest TV reality show, The Quarter Quell, which will bring together former Victors in gladiator competition, as the seeds of subversion and rebellion are sprouting throughout Panem.
“Last year was child’s play,” warns Katniss’ manipulative mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, it’s adroitly directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), who adheres to the central themes of loyalty, trust and betrayal, while developing complex emotional relationships and maintaining the resonant political undercurrent and exploitive tension of the suspenseful jungle Games, which involve a rotating rock island, rabid monkeys, attack birds, blood rain and a rolling fog of poison gas.
Oscar-winner for “Silver Linings Playbook,” Jennifer Lawrence once again embodies fiery, ferocious, fatalistic Katniss, the outspoken, revolutionary warrior whose weapon of choice is the bow and arrow. There’s also meaty, masterful support from Elizabeth Banks as PR-maven Effie Trinket, Lenny Kravitz as designer Cinna and Stanley Tucci as TV host Caesar Flickerman, along with newcomers Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Jena Malone. And great credit goes to Capitol Couture’s Trish Summerville for inventive, elaborate costumes.
The final book “Mockingjay” will be divided into two parts, the first scheduled for release next November.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is an exciting, engaging, escapist 8 – a spectacular sequel that should satisfy fans of the book as well as the 2012 blockbuster.
Susan Granger’s review of “The Armstrong Lie” (Sony Pictures Classics)
The story of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong follows along the lines of classic Greek tragedy: Hubris (the sin of pride and arrogance) to Ate (moral blindness or madness) to Nemesis (inevitable destruction). Among the ancients, after calamity occurs, the protagonist usually regrets his hubris. Here, a somewhat chastened Armstrong finally admits, “I didn’t live a lot of lies, but I lived a big one.”
In 2008, Alex Gibney started filming a celebratory documentary about Lance Armstrong’s comeback to cycling after a three-year retirement. The project was shelved when the doping scandal erupted, and re-opened after Armstrong’s confession. Using Armstrong’s televised interview with Oprah Winfrey to set the stage, Gibney recalls Armstrong’s trials and tribulations – from his battle with testicular cancer in 1996 to his seven consecutive Tour de France victories (1999-2005). Widely acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest athletes, Armstrong would have retained that glory had he not desired to bask once again in public adoration. But by this time, many professional cyclists had been busted for doping. His former teammates knew how duplicitous Armstrong had used EPO (the drug prescribed by his Italian doctor), testosterone, cortisone, the human growth hormone, even blood transfusions to enhance his performance over the years. Resentful, they were ready to testify.
While Gibney intercuts these revelatory interviews with clips of Armstrong vehemently denying drug use and viciously lashing out at his critics and detractors, the narrative lacks the insight that Gibney has brought to previous subjects in “We Steal Secrets,” “Catching Hell” and “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Perhaps because Gibney, too, was dazzled by Armstrong’s mystique, he never delves into what drove the Texas competitor to be so brazen – other than a desperate desire to win. After far too much 2009 Tour de France footage, eventually, Armstrong concedes, “It’s very hard to control the truth forever. This has been my downfall.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Armstrong Lie” is a scalding 6, revealing how the fear of humiliation is one of the greatest motivators in human behavior.
Susan Granger’s review of “Delivery Man” (DreamWorks/Disney)
Looking for light comedy? With so many ‘significant’ films opening, it’s refreshing to find one that simply offers frothy, feel-good fun.
Irresponsible, unreliable and $80,000 in debt, aimless David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn) can’t seem to get his life in order, much to the dismay of his Polish father (Andrzej Blumfeld), butcher brother (Bobby Moynihan) and long-time girl-friend Emma (Cobie Smulders), an NYPD cop who tells him she’s pregnant. Excited that he’s about to be a father, he confides in his buddy/lawyer Brett (Chris Pratt), a beleaguered father of four, who cautions him that parenthood is not going to be easy.
Simultaneously, David discovers that there’s been a disastrous error at the defunct fertility clinic where he frequently donated sperm-for-cash 20 years ago. Despite his having signed an iron-clad anonymity/confidentiality agreement, the 533 offspring he sired under the pseudonym Starbuck are now demanding to know who their biological father is. Curious about the 142 petitioners in this class-action lawsuit, David surreptitiously tracks down some of the individual plaintiffs – his now-grown children – in hopes of becoming, if not their father, perhaps their ‘guardian angel.’ They include a professional basketball player, wannabe actor, street-singer, drug addict (Britt Robertson), YMCA lifeguard, vegan hipster (Adam Chaner-Berat) and mute, special needs youngster (Sebastian Rene) who is institutionalized and confined to a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the lawsuit’s gone viral, publicly denouncing Starbuck/David as a chronic masturbator.
Based on a French/Canadian film “Starbuck,” it’s adapted by Martin Petit and director Ken Scott, who change the locale from Montreal, Quebec, to Brooklyn, New York, where David drives the Wozniak & Sons meat-delivery truck, and they’ve wisely added Chris Pratt’s engagingly goofy supporting role. While the crazy deception is, admittedly, predictable and contrived, it’s also chock full of comedic opportunity and heartfelt emotional involvement, which Vince Vaughn (“The Break-Up,” “Swingers,” “The Internship”) plays to the hilt, utilizing every bit of his innocuous slacker charm.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Delivery Man” is an amusing, compassionate 6, celebrating an unconventional concept of family.