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“The Railway Man”

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

 

Dealing with severe post-traumatic stress is the theme of this British drama based on the late Eric Lomax’s best-selling 1995 autobiographical novel.

Set in Berwick-upon-Tweed in England in 1980, self-professed train enthusiast Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is a former British Army officer, a signals engineer, who is still haunted by excruciating experiences during his interment at a Japanese labor camp during World War II.  Married to an empathetic nurse, Patti (Nicole Kidman), whom he met on a train to Scotland, he discovers that Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Japanese soldier who brutally tortured and tormented him, is now working as a tour guide at the same Kempeitai Internment Camp which became a war museum. That launches vivid memories of his capture in Singapore in 1942 and how young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and his fellow prisoners became slave laborers, forced to build Bridge 277 on the Burma-Siam Railroad, nicknamed the “death railway,” which later inspired “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Young Imperial Army translator Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) was a sadist, relentlessly beating emaciated Lomax and subjecting him to a forerunner of water-boarding by attaching a hose to his mouth after Lomax used pilfered parts to build a contraband radio to listen to the BBC. Intending to wreak long-suppressed, murderous revenge, elderly Lomax visits the museum, reveals his identity and proceeds to confront and interrogate Nagase, who doesn’t think of himself as a war criminal.

Adapted by Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce and perhaps-too-respectfully directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (“Burning Man”), its dramatic effectiveness is hampered by lack of suspenseful structure and starchy reticence, which not only forces Patti to rely on recollections from fellow P.O.W. Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) but also dilutes Lomax’s compassionate forgiveness.  Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) captures Lomax’s calibrated emotional repression, as does Jeremy Irvine (“War Horse”), while Nicole Kidman satisfies in a somewhat thankless role.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Railway Man” is an anguished 7, culminating with the surprising consequences of their reunion which resulted in the documentary “Enemy, My Friend.”

“Under the Skin”

Susan Granger’s review of “Under the Skin” (A24)

Delving into the realm of existential science-fiction, director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) examines what it means to be human.

Accompanied by a shadowy, silent motorcyclist, there’s an expressionless, extraterrestrial stalker (Scarlett Johansson) on a mission. Driving a white cargo van, this alien femme fatale roams the crowded city streets of Glasgow and the rural Scottish Highlands, wearing a black wig and clad in a fake-fur jacket, torn fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, prowling for her chosen prey: lonely, unattached men. When she randomly finds a compliant victim, she offers him a ride, seduces him, strips him and sinks him into an inky, inescapable void. Although murky, there’s some subtext about harvested human fillets being sent back as part of the food chain on her home planet.

Loosely based on a Michael Faber’s satirical, metaphorical novel, “The Crimson Petal and the White” (2000), it’s adapted as a kind of B-movie horror story by director Jonathan Glazer with Walter Campbell, complete with reminiscent tinges of wraithlike David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 classic “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Fortunately, there’s not much dialogue because Ms. Johansson’s British accent is wobbly and the thick brogue spoken by most of her Glaswegian cohorts is indecipherable.  The press notes state that most of the men in the film are non-actors who didn’t realize they were being filmed by small digital cameras concealed in and around the van; it was only after they complied that they were asked to sign a “Candid Camera”-like release.

While atmospheric concept is mysterious and the imagery intriguing at first, repetitious tedium soon sets in, which makes it seem longer than the 108 minute running time. Credit Scarlett Johansson for once again embodying an enigmatic entity that men desire, a role she’s played in one form or another in “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” “Lost in Translation” and “Her.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Under the Skin” a subtly strange, surreal 6, appealing to avant-garde art-house audiences searching for something different.

“small time”

Susan Granger’s review of “small time” (Anchor Bay Films)

“This is the story about my father and the summer we spent together many years ago. It was the summer that changed my life.”

That’s the way Freddy Klein (Devon Bostick) introduces his dad Al (Christopher Meloni), who owns Diamond Motors, a used car dealership in Covina in Southern California.  Strategically working in tandem with his partner, perennial bachelor Ash Martini (Dean Norris), Al can sell cars to even the most unlikely customers, like an unsuspecting thief who was trying to steal off the lot. Middle-aged Al’s divorced from Barbara (Bridget Moynahan), who dumped him to marry Chick (Xander Berkeley), a wealthy venture capitalist, and their son Freddy has just graduated from high school. To everyone’s surprise, Freddy decides to forego college in favor of selling cars with his easygoing dad. While vulnerable Al is thrilled to have his only son move back in, when Freddy starts to emulate him and manipulate customers, Al has some difficult decisions to make.

Making his big-screen debut, Emmy-winning writer/director Joel Surnow (co-creator/executive producer of Fox’s “24”) recalls that he wrote the first draft with the late Randall A. Wallace during the summer of 1976, just after he graduated from UCLA film school. He based the characters of Klein and Martini on his father and his partner, who were slick but small-time carpet salesmen. Filled with humor and heart, Surnow has created an endearing father/son coming-of-age comedic drama.  His spot-on casting teams Christopher Meloni (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Oz”) with Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) and Devon Bostick (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”), while Bridget Moynahan (“Blue Bloods”) adds surprising depth. Amaury Nolasco adds support as a troubled mechanic, as does Ashley Jensen as the office manager.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “small time” is an insightful 6, destined for well-deserved popularity on the DVD shelf.

“Bears”

Susan Granger’s review of “Bears” (Disneynature)

 

Disneynature’s fifth theatrical documentary follows a family of three grizzlies – protective mother Sky and her two newborn cubs: curious Scout and obedient Amber. Set in Alaska’s rugged Katmai National Park, it begins as they emerge from their snowy den after winter hibernation and make their way down the mountain trail, barely avoiding an avalanche. As they proceed toward the grassy meadows and streams where they can feed on spawning salmon, danger lurks.  Statistically, only half of all bear cubs survive their first year of life, succumbing either to starvation or predators – like Magnus, the area’s dominant alpha male, the outcast Chinook and the prowling wolf Tikaani.

British co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey (“African Cats”), working with co-writer Adam Chapman, anthropomorphize the animals, giving them human names, characteristics and imagined dialogue, to create an educational, emotionally appealing story, which is amiably narrated by John C. Reilly. Parents should know the abandonment and drowning scares are delicately handled but could, nevertheless, upset tiny tots.

The vibrant cinematography is spectacular, both aerial and ground shots, and youngsters will be amused by the vivid footage of the bears’ clumsy but efficient fishing as the salmon jump out of the water, valiantly trying to make it upstream. George Fenton’s symphonic score emphasizes the intrinsic drama, epitomized by Olivia Holt’s “Carry On.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bears” is an engrossing, engaging 8 – and the closing credits reveal behind-the-scenes glimpses of filming in the wild.

“Transcendence”

Susan Granger’s review of “Transcendence” (Warner Bros.)

 

In the motion picture industry, it’s often difficult to make the career transition from cinematographer to director because, often, when cameramen direct, they make the fatal mistake of concentrating visual imagery, as opposed to storytelling. And Willy Pfister, renowned collaborator of Christopher Nolan’s who won an Oscar for filming “Inception” (2011), falls into this trap.

The story begins in the near future – after the information superhighway has been derailed. Cell phones litter the streets and a computer keyboard makes a convenient doorstop. As the narrator, neurobiologist Max Walters (Paul Bettany), recalls the “unstoppable collision between mankind and technology,” flashbacks begin. Five years earlier, research scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife/collaborator Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) were developing a sentient computer called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network). Think of omniscient HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The triumph of artificial intelligence over human individualism terrifies RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a militant rebel group led by Bree (Kate Mara), who launch a deadly series of terror attacks around the country. A radiation-laced bullet leaves Will dying, as Evelyn and their colleague Max upload his consciousness into PINN, which is moved to a hastily-constructed $38 million data center in the Southern California desert that’s powered by thousands of solar panels. Soon Will/PINN becomes digitally omnipotent, creating creepy, obedient nano-zombies that horrify Will’s former associate (Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy).

The ethical conflict inherent in mind control is an intriguing concept, but first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen’s muddled, simplistic, highly derivative thriller is filled with blandly one-dimensional characters speaking confusing techno-babble. Calling Wally Pfister’s directing heavy-handed is an understatement; there’s no sense of danger, tension or emotional connection in his tediously slow pacing.  And director of photography Jess Hall comes up with too many slow-motion droplets of water and ascending flares filled with energy particles. Sci-fi was far better served by Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Transcendence” is a terminally boring 2. What a waste of talent and money!

“Heaven Is for Real”

Susan Granger’s review of “Heaven Is for Real” (TriStar Pictures)

 

Adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book, this story focuses on the bond between an affable Midwestern minister and his precocious four year-old son who insists that he went to Heaven, where angels sang and he visited with Jesus.

In the farming community of Imperial, Nebraska, popular Crossroads Wesleyan Church pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) works as a repairman, high school wrestling coach and volunteer fireman.  He and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) have two children, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum), and are constantly coping with the challenge of paying their bills. They’re deeper into debt after Todd breaks his leg and suffers painful kidney stones, followed by Connor’s ruptured appendix. But Todd’s belief is really tested when young Connor matter-of-factly describes going to heaven during his surgery. When the youngster adds details that cannot be explained rationally, Todd begins to question his own convictions, researching near-death experiences and consulting with a psychologist at a nearby college. His quest influences his sermons which, in turn, upset skeptical parishioners, like Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale) and Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church), particularly when the press becomes involved.

Adapted with subtly wry humor by director Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) and co-writer Christopher Parker, it remains non-denominational/non-sectarian – for the most part – serving as an effective metaphor to raise provocative questions about the fundamental nature of faith and the almost universal desire for an afterlife. What elevates this above recent religious films like “Son of God” and “God’s Not Dead” are skillful production values: writing, directing, cinematography, editing, and, above all, acting.

It’s Greg Kinnear’s appealing Everyman that makes the premise believable. Cherubic Connor Corum’s portrayal seems guileless and natural, while Thomas Hayden Church satisfies as Todd’s friend/banker and Margo Martindale scores as an angry, bitter bereaved mother. The only distraction comes from an awkward framing device involving Akiane Kramarik, a young Lithuanian painter whose portrait of Jesus resembles a pop star.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Heaven is for Real” is a sensitive, spiritual 7 – recommended for family-viewing.

“Le Week-End”

Susan Granger’s review of “Le Week-End” (Music Box Films)

 

With their longtime marriage in danger, Nick (Jim Broadbent), a Birmingham college philosophy professor, and his schoolteacher wife, Meg (Lindsay Duncan), board the Eurostar from London to Paris, where they honeymooned 30 years ago. Their anniversary celebration sours immediately when Meg discovers Nick has booked them into a shabby, cheap hotel, so she commandeers the credit card and switches them to a posh place with a luxurious suite overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

As their holiday unfolds, amid visits to bookstores, bistros, museums and Samuel Beckett’s grave, it becomes obvious that Nick’s being forced into early retirement and it’s not clear whether restless Meg’s future plans include him, now that their two sons are grown. A chance encounter with Nick’s slyly smug, highly successful Cambridge buddy, American ex-pat Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), followed by a dinner party at his Rue de Rivoli flat, is the catalyst that crystalizes the compromises they’ve both made over the years, as Nick wryly confides in Morgan’s neglected, stoner son (Olly Alexander) and Meg turns to Morgan’s pregnant, young French wife (Judith Davis).  There’s recrimination, followed by hints of reconciliation – along with songs by Bob Dylan and Nick Drake, and an amusing dance sequence that evokes memories of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande a Part.”

This marks the fourth collaboration between screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell (“Venus,” “The Mother,” “The Buddha of Suburbia”), who capture mid-life melancholy and reflective regret. The two British actors are seasoned pros who are able to clearly – and endearingly – delineate the tart complexity of their bickering characters. While Jim Broadbent is familiar to American audiences from “Gangs of New York,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Another Year” and “Iris,” for which he received an Oscar, elegant Lindsay Duncan was seen in “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Mansfield Park.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Le Week-End” is an unsentimental, bittersweet 7, appealing to older, art-house audiences who enjoyed “Quartet” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

“God’s Not Dead”

Susan Granger’s review of “God’s Not Dead” (Freestyle Releasing)

 

Why the sudden proliferation of Christian movies? Have Hollywood’s heathens been converted? Not likely. Biblical films have been around as long as the movie business; back in 1927, “The King of Kings” depicted Mary Magdalene’s liaison with Judas Iscariot. In recent decades, evangelical Christians have become voracious media consumers; Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” remains the highest-grossing independent film ever.

But this maudlin melodrama is not only forgettable but also unlikely. Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) is a pre-law student who enrolls in a philosophy class taught by arrogant Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). On the first day, Radisson outlines the philosophers they’ll be studying, all of whom are atheists – and insists that each student sign a pledge asserting: “God is dead.”

Immediately, the proselytizing concept loses credibility – because no teacher at a legitimate academic institution would make that demand, augmenting it with the threat of failure in the course.

As a devout Christian, Josh cannot comply, despite protests from his girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford, daughter of Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford). When Professor Radisson demeans religion as “primitive superstition,” Josh decides to defend his principles in a mock trial with fellow students serving as the jury. While Josh’s support of God’s existence is intelligent and thought-provoking, too little time is spent on theology. Instead, non-Christians are portrayed as loathsome and self-centered. There’s a corporate exec (Dean Cain) who ditches his cancer-stricken girlfriend (Trisha LaFache) and refuses to visit his mother who is suffering from dementia. And a Muslim father (Dean Cain) whose daughter (Hadeel Sittu) is banished for her beliefs.

Written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon and directed by Harold Cronk, it’s contrived and undeniably amateurish, including a cameo from “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “God’s Not Dead” is an implausible 3, likely to please only the faithful – with a host of Christian-centric movies to follow, including “Left Behind” with Nicolas Cage as a commercial airline pilot caught in the wake of the Rapture.

“The Raid 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Raid 2” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

It’s obvious from the getgo that this genre sequel to Gareth Evans’ 2011 “Raid: Redemption” is going to be an intense, uber- violent action adventure. Set in Indonesia, just hours after the conclusion of the previous film, it’s the epic tale of a heroic Jakarta cop infiltrating an underworld cartel in order to weed out the rampant corruption within the city’s police force.

When Rama (Iko Uwais) joins a covert undercover police force, he’s given a new identity and sent to prison where he befriends Uco (Arifin Putra), the hot-tempered scion of a crime family. Two years later, when Rama gets released, Uco’s grateful father, Bangun (Tio Padkusadewo), gives Rama a job as an enforcer. Problem is: impatient Uco wants to take over the business and is tempted by seductive offers from leather-gloved Bejo (Alex Abbad), a rival boss who previously bumped off Rama’s bad-seed brother in a sugarcane field. That places Rama right in the middle of a father/son turf war, fighting off psychopathic assassins like Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), while his long-suffering wife and infant son wait on the sidelines.

Obviously, Welsh-born writer/director Gareth Evans surrounds himself with martial arts specialists who pride themselves on inventive methods of annihilation – like pushing a man’s face onto a steaming griddle. Stretched over two-and-a-half hours, the relentless mayhem is adroitly photographed and carefully choreographed with a bizarrely artistic flair, particularly the careening, multi-vehicle car chases, reminiscent of “The French Connection” – all punctuated by a primarily percussive soundtrack.

There’s little CGI, so it’s all accomplished by stuntmen and adroit editing. But how the combat scenes with their explicit carnage managed an R-rating is a mystery; NC-17 would have been more appropriate. But then it couldn’t have played in mainstream theaters.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Raid” is a sadistic 6 – and the fact that it’s subtitled doesn’t much matter since the bloody, brutal brawling transcends the language barrier.

“Island of Lemurs: Madagascar”

Susan Granger’s review of “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” (Warner Bros.)

 

Have you ever seen lemurs dance? In this nature documentary, narrator Morgan Freeman transports you thousands of miles away – to the island of Madagascar, where the Earth’s oldest primates dwell.

More than 60 million years ago, the ancestors of these lemurs floated from East Africa on the Mozambique Channel in the Indian Ocean to Madagascar on little rafts of vegetation. In that strange, isolated environment with no predators, they flourished, developing into a variety of species, some as large as a gorilla. Now, because of the growth of civilization, over 90% of their forests have been destroyed.  All the giant lemurs are extinct – and the types that are left are in danger.

Filmmakers David Douglas and Drew Fellman (“Born to Be Wild”) spent three months exploring the elusive lemurs’ exotic habitats and working with American primatologist Dr. Patricia C. Wright, Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University, who describes their female-centric power structure.

Known as the “Eighth Continent,” massive Madagascar is about the size of Texas – with a varied topography.  Established in 1991, Ranomafana National Park provides 112,000 acres of protected rainforest and has become only indigenous home to many species – from the Greater Bamboo lemurs to the Ring-tailed lemurs and the Mouse Lemurs which, as the smallest primates in the world, have the same genetic foundation as humans. While the large Indri lemurs are the shrill choral masters, it’s the dancing Sifakas that steal your heart. They’re playful, arboreal acrobats, leaping great distances between trees covered in needle-sharp spines.

To their credit, the filmmakers never anthropomorphize these adorably furry creatures. Instead, they allow the lemurs’ expressive faces and frisky antics, captured by the astounding imagery of the 3-D IMAX format, weave a compelling web. If only it was a rousing call to some kind of action.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” is an enchanting, educational 7, delivering its ecological message about conservation in a most delightful way. See it daily at the IMAX Theater in the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk.