Susan Granger’s review of “300: Rise of an Empire” (Warner Bros.)
Told in the same distinctive visual style as Zack Snyder’s “300,” this contiguous saga pits Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) against attacking Persian forces, ruled by glistening God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), son/heir to King Darius, and led by his naval commander, cunning and vengeful Artemisia (Eva Green). The timeline is confusing since this occurs during and after the fall of Spartan King Leonidas at Thermopylae.
As the Athenian politician who earnestly believes in democracy, General Themistocles attempts to unite the disparate Greek city-states to fight together against the Persian invaders, but he runs into major opposition from Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) who serves as storyteller.
Scripted by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel “Xerxes” by Frank Miller, it’s vividly directed by Noam Murro and photographed by Simon Duggan with excessive amounts of blood splattering in slow-motion. According to Hellenistic historian Herodotus, Xerxes and Artemesia existed but his origin story and the details of their relationship have been fictionalized, along with Artemesia’s sex-and-violence interlude with Themistocles aboard her barge.
While Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton (“Animal Kingdom”) propels the plot, Eva Green (“Casino Royale”) steals the show with her sensuous, ferociously villainous portrayal. Credit goes to stunt coordinator/second-unit director Damon Caro for the intricate sword-play and epic, bare-chested hand-to-hand combat sequences, and nods to VFX supervisor Richard Hollander and Bryan Hirota at Scanline for the roiling, hyper-stylized Aegean Sea.
FYI: The physical sets – including segments of Greek wooden triremes and the black-clad Persian warships – were constructed on soundstages at Nu Boyana Studio, just outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. Scenes where the actors had to go into the water were filmed in tanks in London at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden. And every set, both interior and exterior, was surrounded by blue or green screens, which would later be transformed into views of ancient Greece or Persia.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “300: Rise of an Empire” is a stylized 6, an action fantasy filled with brutal naval battles and brimming with excessive grisly gore.
Susan Granger’s review of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” (DreamWorks/20th Century-Fox)
“If a boy can adopt a dog, I see no reason why a dog can’t adopt a boy,” says a judge – which explains how a brilliant, bespectacled beagle, Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell), is able to raise orphaned Sherman (voiced by Max Charles) as his own. Education is important, so Mr. Peabody teaches Sherman world history by transporting him to different eras, using a time-traveling machine, the WABAC (Wavelength Acceleration Bidirectional Asychronous Controller), that’s secreted in his New York apartment.
Their nemesis is a nosy social worker, Miss Grunion (voiced by Allison Janney), who believes that even a Nobel prize-winning, Olympic medalist dog is not a suitable parent for a human, particularly when Sherman bites a teasing, competitive classmate, feisty Penny Peterson (voiced by Ariel Winter). That upsets not only Miss Grunion but also Penny’s parents (voiced by Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert). When Mr. Peabody invites everyone for a peace-making dinner, Sherman disobeys his dad and shows Penny the WABAC, ostensibly to prove that George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree. Things go awry when Penny propels them on an unexpected adventure that starts in ancient Egypt, where she finds herself betrothed to nine year-old child Pharoah Tutankhamun (voiced by Zach Callison). They discover Agamemnon (voiced by Patrick Warburton) just before the sacking of the ancient city of Troy and visit with Leonardo Da Vinci (voiced by Stanley Tucci) and Albert Einstein (voiced by Mel Brooks). Not surprisingly, their hijinks rupture the space-time continuum – which Mr. Peabody is compelled to try to repair and restore.
Created by Ted Key, the characters are drawn from “Peabody’s Improbably History,” short skits that were part of Jay Ward’s “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show,” broadcast on Saturday mornings (1959-64). Scripted by Craig Wright (HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) and directed by Rob Minkoff (“Stuart Little”), the inventive animation is stunning, the puns funny and the 3D effects impressive
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is a zany, surprisingly educational 7 – for kids and their parents.
Susan Granger’s review of “Son of God” (20th Century-Fox)
Hollywood’s 2014 religious renaissance commences with this clumsy New Testament condensation of the History Channel’s 10-hour miniseries “The Bible,” produced by reality TV mogul Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey.
“In the beginning was the Word,” gospel scribe John (Sebastian Knapp) begins, quickly zipping through the tales of Adam and Eve, Noah and Abraham until the Christ child is born to Mary (Roma Downey) in Bethlehem. Reflections on his formative years have been deleted, particularly Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, reportedly because the actor (Mehdi Ouazzani) portraying Satan was said to resemble President Obama. So the story really starts as Jesus (Diego Morgado) launches his ministry, calling forth his disciples at the Sea of Galilee. Exuding beatific compassion, Jesus heals a paralytic, walks on water and feeds 5,000 hungry followers. When he arrives in Jerusalem, Jesus exposes the symbiotic relationship between despotic Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks) and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller), turning over the tables of the money-changers in the temple.
Earnestly blending the efforts of four screenwriters and three directors, including Christopher Spencer, is no easy task, so it’s not surprising that this banal, distilled biopic seems fragmented and dispassionate, trivializing parables to one-liners, leading up to the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Revelation. Unfortunately, Portuguese model-turned-actor Diego Morgado’s performance is so charmless and bland that it’s difficult to comprehend his character’s charismatic effect on his supporters, even if he’s billed as “the first Latin Jesus.”
Specifically designed not to offend, this sermon-tainment has been endorsed by prominent Christian pastors Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes and Sam Rodriguez, along with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who calls it “the antidote to the poison that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ became.” Yet it suffers terribly when compared with Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and/or Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Son of God” is a faith-based 5, aimed at a church-driven audience of true believers. Still to come: Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus.”
Susan Granger’s review of “Non-Stop” (Universal Pictures)
You’re never going to see this suspense thriller on a plane – because it’s a truly terrifying commentary on TSA screening and airline safety protocols.
Weary Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is a battered, boozing U.S. Air Marshal assigned to work a British Aqualantic 767 from New York City to London on a cold, wintry day. Sighing with resignation, he walks through the airport, profiling potential troublemakers before settling into a Business Class aisle seat, next to flirtatious Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), who’s determined to sit near the window. Shortly after takeoff, Marks’ cellphone alerts him to a series of threatening text messages, obviously from someone on-board, demanding $150 million be deposited into a certain bank or someone will die every 20 minutes.
Sneaking off to smoke in the lav after adroitly blocking the alarm sensor, Marks suspects it’s a joke concocted by a fellow Air Marshal but that’s not the case – and the body count begins to mount. Trusting only Jen and the two flight attendants – Nancy (Michelle Dockery a.k.a. Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey”) and Gwen (Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for “12 Years a Slave”) – Marks tries to narrow down the list of suspects. There’s that Middle Eastern doctor, a surly bald man, a hotheaded NYPD cop, the black computer whiz and a bespectacled schoolteacher, among others. Complications arise when the offshore account turns out to be in Marks’ own name. As cellphone videos of the increasing chaos are picked up by TV news, reporters assert that the flight has been hijacked by an Air Marshal, and rebellious passengers grow alarmingly suspicious of their alleged protector. Two military jet escorts appear alongside, transmitting orders to the pilot who is – by now – barricaded in the cockpit.
Skillfully directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown”), 61 year-old Liam Neeson has the gravitas to make the implausible action compelling, working from a chock-full-of-red-herring script by first-timers John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Non-Stop” is an edge-of-your-seat 8, a dandy whodunit.
Susan Granger’s review of “Pompeii” (Sony/TriStar Pictures)
Paul W.S. Anderson’s sword-and-sandals epic plays like a video game version of a disaster movie, commencing with Pliny the Younger’s first-hand account of the A.D. 79 calamity in which his esteemed uncle, soldier/scholar Pliny the Elder, perished in the bay at Stabiae.
Previous to that, however, in northern Britannia, a youngster named Milo watches as his family and entire tribe, the Celtic Horse Peoples, are slaughtered by marauding Roman soldiers under the command of decadent General Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who is determined to extend the reign of Emperor Andronicus. Young Milo is captured and enslaved. Within 15 years, he has become an accomplished Londinium gladiator and is shipped off to Pompeii, near Naples in Southern Italy.
That’s where muscle-bound Milo (Kit Harrington) catches the eye of a beautiful maiden, Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of an upper-class merchant (Jared Harris) and his noble wife (Carrie-Ann Moss). Not so coincidentally, Cassia has been betrothed to gross, now-Senator Corvus. Meanwhile, the Vinalia festival is underway and the African champion, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), is only one death-match victory away from emancipation. So those are the stakes: Milo needs to wreak vengeance against Corvus, who must not marry Cassia, and Atticus must earn his freedom.
While the campy beefcake quotient is high, director Paul W.S. Anderson (“Resident Evil,” “Mortal Kombat”) and screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson formulate a cheesy, cliché-riddled poor boy/rich girl “Titanic”-like scenario, never allowing us forget that volcanic Mount Vesuvius looms in the Coliseum’s background, ready to bury everyone in bubbling lava.
Visually, the 3D adds little, particularly since it darkens what’s already dim, so if you’re determined to see this, go for the 2D version. Insofar as the acting goes, it’s one-dimensional. While Kit Harrington may be memorable as part of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” ensemble, he lacks singular charisma, along with Australian actress Emily Browning, leaving the scenery-chewing to Kiefer Sutherland, who relishes every evil moment.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pompeii” blows an ill-fated 4. With fireballs falling from the sky, it’s catastrophic.
Susan Granger’s review of “3 Days to Kill” (Relativity Media)
Filmmaker Luc Besson (“The Professional,” “The Transporter”) is obviously obsessed with various permutations of the father-daughter relationship. So it’s not surprising that Besson co-scripted this action thriller with Adi Hasak, leaving the direction to McG (“Charlie’s Angels,” “Terminator Salvation”). Problem is: they obviously couldn’t decide whether this is an explosive espionage saga or madcap parental mayhem, revolving around balancing work and family. So they commit to neither.
Punctuated by careening car chases and senseless shoot-outs, the convoluted drama commences with rumpled, world-weary Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), a veteran C.I.A. agent, who resigns when he discovers he’s dying of brain cancer and attempts to reconnect with his Parisian-based, long-estranged wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen), and teenage daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld). But a new control agent, vampy ViVi (Amber Heard), is determined to recruit him for one last killing spree, enticing him with an experimental drug that could extend his life. His target is a nuclear arms dealer with an albino accountant and their associates, doing nefarious business in the City of Light. And all this takes place during the three-day period when he’s supposed to be home with his rebellious daughter whom his wife has left in his care.
Comedic relief comes with the tenuous father/daughter connection. Having been absent for most of her childhood, clueless Ethan buys Zoey a purple bicycle, which she not only rejects but has no idea how to ride. There’s a running gag as calls from Zoey’s cell-phone interrupt each of his interrogations and/or assassinations with her signature ring-tone, Icona Pop’s song “I Love It (I Don’t Care).” And throw in an overtly sentimental subplot involving an immigrant African family squatting in Ethan’s decrepit apartment; legally, he’s not allowed to evict them during the wintertime.
Following in Liam Neeson’s footsteps, still-charismatic Kevin Costner (“Field of Dreams,” “The Untouchables,” “Bull Durham,” “The Bodyguard”) is a believably bewildered hero, using his deadpan demeanor to farcical advantage.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “3 Days to Kill” is a contrived, forced 5, a two-hour diversion – at best.
Susan Granger’s review of “Bronx Bombers” (Circle in the Square Theater 2013-2014 season)
Eric Simonson had a clever idea: stage an inspirational, sports-themed human interest story to bring the jocks, an underserved audience, into mainstream theater. First he did “Lombardi” about the Green Bay Packers and leadership, then “Magic/Bird,” focusing on baseball and competition. Now he’s come up with the concept of what makes a great baseball team, focusing on the New York Yankees, an organization with 27 championships, more than anyone else, to its credit.
The play begins in a Boston hotel suite during the summer of 1977, when scrappy, hot-tempered Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs), the Yankees manager, benched his star right fielder, Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste), accusing him of loafing in the outfield, igniting a famous Fenway Park dugout fallout when they lost to the Boston Red Sox. Catcher-turned-coach Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari) and team captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes) try to make peace in the name of sportsmanship. Tension takes the form of the tradition of teamwork versus personal stardom, as narcissistic Jackson declares, “I didn’t come here to melt into someone else’s idea of a team.”
Then, in the second act, Yogi Berra, fearing repercussions from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, drifts off into a fantasy in which he and his wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne) host a dinner for Yankee greats, past and present, including Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), Elston Howard (Francois Battiste), Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson), Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes) and Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), who muses, “The times, they do change you know – and, then again, they don’t.”
While writer/director Eric Simonsen toys with a provocative premise, it never fulfills its pinstriped promise, quickly becoming as sugary as a a box of Cracker Jacks, although the actors’ impersonations seem to work quite convincingly.
FYI: according to reports, when actor Peter Scolari (Lena Dunham’s dad on TV’s “Girls”) and his real-life spouse Tracy Shayne had dinner with the real-life Yogi Berra and his wife, the four immediately hit it off, perhaps igniting a friendship that may last longer than the run of the play.
Susan Granger’s review of “Tim’s Vermeer” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Fine art and technology combine in this fascinating documentary about how an obsessive amateur was able to recreate an astonishingly precise replica of one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous paintings.
Magicians Penn and Teller introduce their self-made millionaire friend, NewTek computer graphics inventor Tim Jenison, who marvels at how the 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was able to paint with a luminous, photographic clarity that rivals photo-realism, long before the modern-day camera was invented. Then – with no previous training in painting – Jenison was able to reproduce “The Music Lesson” in 1,825 days. How did he do it?
After reading artist David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” and studying the mathematical calculations in architect/professor Philip Steadman’s “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces,” Jenison decided to explore American photographer Joseph Pennell’s controversial 1891 assertion that Vermeer was able to achieve his exceptional effects through projected optical images, utilizing primitive mirrors and lenses.
Directed by non-speaking Teller, Jenison chats amiably with Penn Jillette while demonstrating how his relentless research unraveled the mystery that has stumped scholars for decades. After learning to read Dutch, studying Vermeers in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, and visiting the artist’s hometown of Delft, Jenison recreates Vermeer’s studio in a San Antonio, Texas, warehouse, complete with window décor, furniture, rugs and costumed models. To insure accuracy, Jenison inveigles his way into Buckingham Palace to view the ‘original’ in the Queen’s private collection; grinds his own pigments, using only ingredients that were available to Vermeer; and spends months hunched over a 29”x25” canvas, squinting through a variety of lenses in the kind of camera obscura that Vermeer must have used. And every detail is duplicated with painstaking precision.
While art-history academics debate whether Vermeer “cheated,” it becomes obvious that Vermeer was one of the first ingenious artists to combine painting with technology, inventing new techniques.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tim’s Vermeer” is an intriguing 8, delineating an experiment that should appeal to an art-house audience.
Susan Granger’s review of “Endless Love” (Universal Pictures)
Never a great fan of Franco Zeffirelli’s sudsy 1981 star-crossed teens love story, starring Brooke Shields, I wasn’t surprised that Shana Feste’s sugary remake is even more insipid.
Although Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde) and David Elliot (Alex Pettyfer) are members of the same Atlanta graduating class, it seems that she’s spent the past four years so buried in her studies that she never looked up and saw the handsomest hunk in her high school. But he’s had his eye on her – and when he’s parking cars at a posh Inn, he finally attracts her attention. Under the watchful eye of her cardiologist father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), she’s headed for Brown University to study medicine and is scheduled to spend the summer working on an internship with a high-profile Georgia surgeon. Although her mom, Anne (Joely Richardson), and brother, Keith (Rhys Wakefield), have gone through their mourning period, her dad is still grieving over his older son’s death from cancer – and he’s furious when lonely Jade ditches the internship and invites David to join them at the family’s magnificent lakeside summer home. The friction between the ardent working-class suitor and upper middle-class protective dad is palpable, presumably because David’s widower dad (Robert Patrick) is an auto mechanic and David has blemish in his rebellious past.
Scripted by Joshua Safran (TV’s “Gossip Girl”) and director Shana Feste (“The Greatest,” “Country Strong”), it’s shamelessly clichéd and lamely contrived, discarding the tragic, pivotal elements of pyromania, prison and political activism that were so prevalent in Scott Spenser’s 1979 best-selling novel. As a result, Hugh’s hostility and subsequent character arc seem more memorable than the titular angst suffered by the infatuated adolescents. Or perhaps it’s because Bruce Greenwood is a more accomplished actor than either Alex Pettyfer (“Magic Mike”) or Gabriella Wilde (“The Three Musketeers”). Which leads one to wonder why Feste cast two, bland 24 year-old Brits as prototypical American teens.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Endless Love” is a tepid 3, a maudlin melodrama not worth revisiting.
Susan Granger’s review of “Winter’s Tale” (Warner Bros.)
Back in 1980, my brother (Stephen Simon) made “Somewhere in Time,” a supernatural fantasy starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. It was crucified by critics and didn’t gain popularity until it was released on DVD, where it’s stayed one of the most popular cinematic romances of the twentieth century. I suspect “Winter’s Tale” will suffer a similar fate. In our cynical culture, it’s difficult to suspend disbelief and gain box-office traction for a wondrous, logic-defying love story that transcends time and space.
The fanciful mythology begins in 1916 in New York City, where a professional thief, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is cornered by nefarious thugs, led by his mentor Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Out of nowhere, a winged white horse (a.k.a. Pegasus) appears to carry him away – into the life of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a wealthy young pianist who is dying of consumption. Much to the consternation of her father (William Hurt), it seems that Peter’s destiny is intertwined with a red-haired woman and Beverly fits the bill, according to Soames, who works for Lucifer (Will Smith in an uncredited cameo). Skip ahead 100 years. While Manhattan’s skyline has transformed, disheveled Peter, who never ages, is still mourning the loss of his beloved Beverly, wandering in Central Park until he encounters a journalist (Jennifer Connolly), who invites him home for dinner – and his true calling becomes clear.
Adapted from a 1983 novel by Mark Helprin and directed by Akiva Goldsman, it explores fate, hope, miracles and other enigmatic concepts, like angels and demons. Colin Farrell seamlessly shifts from snarky to sincere, enraptured by radiant Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil from “Downton Abbey”), while Russell Crowe simply adapts his Javert growl from “Les Miserables.” And it’s a rare treat when seldom-seen Eva Marie Saint emerges in a pivotal role at the conclusion.
Fortunately, Akiva Goldsman, who wrote “A Beautiful Mind,” “Cinderella Man,” “The DaVinci Code,” has top-notch actors on speed-dial and Celeb Deschanel behind the camera.
On the Granger Movie Gauge, “Winter’s Tale” is a spiritual 7, a surreal, stardust-sprinkled journey.