“Labyrinth of Lies”

Susan Granger’s review of “Labyrinth of Lies” (Sony Pictures Classics)


In Germany after World War II, when reconstruction and the Federal Republic took over, the majority of the population tried to forget the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich. That led to a postwar generation that either never heard of Auschwitz or dismissed it as American propaganda.

So in 1958, when Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) becomes a junior prosecutor in Frankfurt, he’s intrigued when an investigative journalist, Thomas Gnielka (Andre Szymanski) reports that an artist, Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), recognized a schoolteacher as the former SS guard who brutalized him.

Naïve Radmann immediately encounters resistance to his inquiries. Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss) says that it’s a lost cause because he’ll need proof of murder, since all other war crimes expired under the statute of limitations, adding that the entire German civil service is filled with former Nazis.

Nevertheless, with Gnielka’s help, Radmann launches an investigation encompassing 8,000 people who worked at Auschwitz. The odds are daunting as Radmann views the U.S. Army Document Center archives in Wiesbaden, where records of 600,000 suspects are haphazardly stored.

Driven by shame and guilt, along with societal complicity involving his own family, Radmann becomes obsessive in his arduous research. Eventually, 22 former Nazis were tried for murder, none of whom were repentant or apologetic.

Unlike the famous Nuremburg trials in the 1940s by the Allies against surviving members of the Nazi high command, the Auschwitz trials (1963-1965) were prosecuted by Germans themselves against fellow countrymen.

Italian-born German director Giulio Ricciarelli and co-writer Elizabeth Bartel created Radmann as a composite of three real-life German prosecutors. He’s the young idealist battling an entrenched bureaucracy. And they wisely resisted the temptation to utilize familiar concentration camp footage when Radmann eventually visits Poland.

There’s also a romantic subplot involving an enterprising young dressmaker (Friederike Becht) whom Radmann initially prosecuted in traffic court. And an attempt to capture elusive Dr. Josef Mengele.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Labyrinth of Lies” is an engrossing, enlightening 8. It’s Germany’s Academy Award submission as Best Foreign Language Film.



Susan Granger’s review of “Sicario” (Lionsgate)


Along the lawless border between the United States and Mexico, drug cartels rule and “sicario” means hitman. That’s where French-Canadian director Denis Villenueve focuses in this grim, grisly thriller.

After idealistic FBI field agent, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her SWAT-team partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), discover a stash of rotting corpses stashed behind a drywall in an Arizona subdivision, she’s recruited by a shadowy government task force, headed by scruffy, sandal-clad Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).

The covert black-ops squad is led by a burly, vengeful Colombian ‘consultant,’ Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who cryptically tells Kate as she dons her Kevlar vest: “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do.”

First on the agenda is an unorthodox trip over the Rio Grande and through the dry, cactus-filled Chihuahua Desert to Juarez to retrieve a prisoner to make him squeal on the Sonora cartel, leading to the capture of businessman Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Saracino) in order to flush out the kingpin, Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cesar Cedillo).

Meanwhile, there’s a Spanish-captioned sub-plot involving a young Mexican policeman (Maximiliano Hernandez), his dutiful wife and his soccer-loving son.

Like Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” unflappable Emily Blunt, as by-the-book Kate, is trying to make sense of the real purpose of their mission. As a result, she doesn’t know whom to trust. And beneath the moral chaos lies the question: does the end justify the means?

Working from a timely script by Texas-native Taylor Sheridan (“Sons of Anarchy”), Denis Villenueve (“Polytechnique,” ”Incendies,” “Prisoners”) evokes memories of Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning “Traffic” (2000), utilizing the same subject matter in a far more sinister context, superbly photographed by Roger Deakins, expertly edited by Joe Walker and subtly scored by Johan Johannsson.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sicario” is a savage 7 – delivering enough sheer brutality and suspense to maintain two hours of dread-filled anxiety.


“The Walk”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Walk” (Sony Pictures)


‘Tis the season for vertigo-inducing cinematography: first, “Everest,” now Robert Zemeckis’ chronicle of how 24 year-old French aerialist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walked across a wire that he and his accomplices strung between the New York’s ill-fated Twin Towers on the morning of August 7, 1974.

Beginning with Petit, standing atop the Statue of Liberty, gazing at the World Trade Center, it traces his early days in Paris, working as an impish street mime/juggler/unicyclist, who first gains attention when he wire-walks between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Armed with advice from a circus-trained mentor (Ben Kingsley) and the support of his girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon), Petit arrives to begin the planning and execution of what he calls “the coup,” an illegal caper involving importing suspicious gear, disguises, the logistics of shooting a wire from one tower to another, and details of the feat.

It all leads up to the digitally-created, death-defying 140-foot stroll – 1,362-feet above the ground – as Petit crosses between the 110-story buildings eight times over the course of 45 minutes.

Covering the same ground as James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on a Wire” (2008), based on Petit’s 2002 memoir “To Reach the Clouds,” it’s been whimsically fictionalized with far too much voiceover narration by screenwriter Christopher Browne and director Zemeckis, best known for “Back to the Future” (1996),  “Cast Away” (2000) and “Forrest Gump” (2004).

Zemeckis has pioneered the use of computer-generated imagery and performance-capture work, beginning with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and including “The Polar Express” (2004) and “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” (2009),

FYI: if you’re prone to nausea, it might be wise to avoid the 3-D IMAX version. A 2013 study in the on-line journal “Plos One” found about 55% of 497 people watching a 3-D movie reported some physical discomfort; about one in 10 felt queasy. That’s because of the disparity between the distance at which our eyes converge and the distance at which they focus.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Walk” is a dazzling, dizzying 6, a daredevil experience.


“99 Homes”

Susan Granger’s review of “99 Homes” (Broad Green Pictures)


Set in Orlando, Florida, this taut, timely thriller begins with a blood-splattered suicide as a suburban home-owner chooses suicide over eviction.

Disposing of the mess falls to callous Richard Carver (Michael Shannon) whose crew waits outside. As a real-estate broker, Carver’s business is acquiring foreclosed-upon homes for re-sale – gaming the real-estate market and the government.

Next on Carver’s list is the family home of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), an unemployed construction worker who is cruelly forced to move his widowed mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and young son, Connor (Noah Lomax), to a shabby motel room.

Determined to earn enough to reclaim his home, Nash grits his teeth and goes to work for Carver, despite Carver’s ominous warning: “When you work for me, you’re mine.”

First, Nash diligently handles clean-ups; then, he’s stealing air conditioners, appliances and water pumps from abandoned houses and posting ‘vacate’ notices when homeowners cannot keep up payments.

Soon, Nash becomes unscrupulous Carver’s protégé, evicting decent, working people and the elderly, giving them only two minutes to pack up their belongings which are dumped on the curb.

“Frist one’s a bitch, but you get numb to it,” Carver says, adding, “America doesn’t bail out losers,” along with oft-repeated advice: “Don’t get emotional about real estate…They’re boxes. Big boxes, small boxes. What matters is how many you’ve got.”

Although he’s earning a lot of money for the first time in his life, Nash is forced to repossess one home after another, each with its humiliating sob story. Inside, he’s ashamed, wondering: “Is it worth it?”

Melodramatically scripted by director Ramin Bahrani (“At Any Price”) and veteran Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi from Bahareh Azimi’s story, it’s a simplistic but emotionally effective commentary on the American economy – with its legal and administrative loopholes.

Growing a beard for the first time on-screen, Andrew Garfield (“Spider-Man”) oozes vulnerability and anguish, while Michael Shannon’s (“The Iceman”) conniving cool is almost reptilian.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “99 Homes” is a socially-conscious, empathetic 8, effectively exposing real-estate corruption.



“Hotel Transylvania 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Hotel Transylvania 2” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Imageworks)


When the original animated kiddie comedy, featuring Adam Sandler as amiable Count Dracula, the proprietor of a monsters-only resort, became a 2012 hit, a sequel was inevitable.

Drac is now a grandfather, courtesy of his daughter, Mavis (pop star Selena Gomez), and her human husband, Jonathan (Andy Samberg). Overprotective Mavis is understandably concerned about childproofing the creaky, old hotel, leaving Drac faced with the challenges of technology.

Most disturbing of all: Drac’s cherubic, red-headed grandson, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff), appears to be more human than vampire. And if his fangs don’t descend by the time he’s five, it will be too late. So, once again, “vampa” (a.k.a. vampire grandpa) Drac must seek a little help from his friends.

Fearful of raising Dennis with monsters, Mavis covertly checks out her husband Johnny’s woodsy Santa Cruz, California, hometown, while visiting with his parents (Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally).

Meanwhile, Drac and his pals take little Dennis and his werewolf puppy Winnie (Sadie Sandler) on a “monster-in-training” trek through newly gentrified Transylvania.

But when Drac throws Dennis from a tall tower to force his transformation into a bat, it’s filmed by campers and uploaded onto the Internet, alerting Mavis and Johnny to return home quickly.

At Dennis’ fifth birthday celebration, his great-grandfather, human-hating Vlad (Mel Brooks) appears with his bat-servant Bela (Rob Riggie). And Vlad’s furious that Drac has welcomed humans into the monsters-only lodging.

Along for the ride are Frankenstein (Kevin James) with his wife (Fran Drescher), Werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi) with his wife (Molly Shannon), Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), Blobby the green Blob (Jonny Solomon), a musician known as Phantom of the Opera (Jon Lovitz), and the Fly (Chris Parnell), the Hotel’s fitness instructor.

Formulaically scripted by Robert Smigel (SNL’s “TV Funhouse” cartoons) and Adam Sandler, it’s predictably directed by Genny Tartakovsky – with an emphasis on silly, slapstick comedy and zany sight gags.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hotel Transylvania 2” is a spooky 6 – a family Halloween treat.


“Green Inferno”

Susan Granger’s review of “Green Inferno” (BH Tilt)


More than any other genre, the success of a horror movie depends on its effect on the audience. How does it manipulate emotions to scare you, utilizing color, sound, dialogue, editing, music and make-up?

Does it use psychology or rely on a series of brutalities for shock value? The best horror films – like Alfred Hitchcock’s ”Psycho” – are those that rely more on suggestion than graphic bloodshed.

Director of the first two “Hostel” movies, Eli Roth opts for violent carnage, inspired by Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s grim “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980), in which ‘found footage’ of a documentary film crew reveals what occurred in the Amazonian jungle, concluding with the memorable line: “I wonder who the real cannibals are.”

Roth’s updated, politically incorrect version begins on a New York college campus, where Alejandro (Ariel Levy) stages a hunger strike for underpaid janitors. His interest then turns to saving the Amazon rain forest from exploitation by developers’ bulldozers.

Despite the skepticism of her roommate (singer Sky Ferreira), naïve Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s real-life wife) joins Alejandro and other clueless students on a mission, over the objections of her father, a human rights lawyer at the U.N., who gives her the phone number of the U.S. Ambassador to Peru – just in case.

When their small plane crashes, Alejandro, Justine and the surviving ‘do-gooders’ are captured and tortured by savages whose bodies are slathered with red ochre and chalk. Ironically, these are South America’s indigenous people, the ones that environmental activists are determined to ‘save.’

Leaving nothing to the imagination, Eli Roth vividly depicts dreadful eye-gouging and depraved genital mutilation of the victims, culminating in a feast, zooming in as the cannibals are chewing on roasted corpses.

FYI: After debuting at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, this was in limbo due to its offensive content – until producer Jason Blum/Blumhouse Productions picked it up, creating a new label, BH Tilt, at Universal Studios.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Green Inferno” is a gross, stomach-churning 2, proving, once again, that no good deed goes unpunished.



“Pawn Sacrifice”

Susan Granger’s review of “Pawn Sacrifice” (Bleecker Street Films)


The name Bobby Fischer isn’t as familiar today, but – back in the Cold War era – this eccentric chess prodigy from Brooklyn dominated the headlines.

During the summer of 1972, everyone, including ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports,” seemed to be riveted on a championship match between young American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Soviet grandmaster/reigning world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Revolving around that framing device, Fischer’s story unfolds.  After losing the first game, belligerent, temperamental Fischer, ever-suspicious of K.G.B. surveillance, refuses to show up for the second, complaining about whirring camera noise and the close proximity of the audience.

In addition, Fischer demands more money and a match relocation to a private ping-pong room. At his side are his support team: Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlberg), an endlessly patient, patriotic lawyer/manager, and Fr. Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a grandmaster coach/priest, who compassionately describes chess as “a rabbit hole,” taking players very close to the edge.

Scripted as part bio-pic/part docudrama by Stephen Knight (“Eastern Promises,” “Locke”), it’s astutely directed by Edward Zwick (“Defiance,” “Blood Diamond,” “The Last Samurai”), who digitally substitutes Maguire for the real Fischer in a ’71 TV interview with Dick Cavett.

Flashbacks show Fischer’s budding genius emerging at age six, much to the surprise of his sister Joan (Lily Rabe) and Russian/Jewish, Left-wing activist mother Regina (Robin Weigert), who was a suspected Communist.

Problem is: looking overtly crazy, Toby Maguire bugs his eyes to telegraph his volatile, paranoid rage. Judging from YouTube videos, the real Bobby Fischer underplayed his obvious idiosyncrasy.

As a result, Schreiber’s intimidating Boris Spassky emerges as the far more intriguing character. And much of the controversy of Fischer’s later years has been left out – like his re-match with Spassky in 1992 and rampant anti-Semitism.

Living in seclusion, his U.S. passport revoked, Fischer called the 9/11 attacks “wonderful news.” In 2008, he died in Reykjavik of kidney failure at age 64.

If you’re intrigued by his ingenuity, see HBO’s “Bobby Fischer Against the World” (2011).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pawn Sacrifice” is a serious, strategic 6 – check and mate.


“The Intern”

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


Looking for a date movie or a feel-good flick your mom would enjoy? You can always rely on mainstream comedy from writer/director Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “What Women Want,” “The Holiday”).

70 year-old Brooklyn widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is at loose ends after his retirement. While he begins every morning with coffee at Starbucks and tai chi class, his days and nights are lonely.

“I just know there’s a hole in my life, and I need to fill it,” he says.

Then he spies an ad for “senior interns” at About the Fit, a thriving e-commerce clothing start-up that’s located in a nearby converted factory.

Acing the interview, he’s assigned to 30-ish entrepreneur Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), Stylish and a stickler for detail, frantic Jules is overworked and overwhelmed by the conflicting demands of her job and her family.

Jules’ husband Matt (Anders Holm) is a stay-at-home dad, caring for their precocious young daughter, Paige (JoJo Kushner), but he’s obviously becoming restless. At the same time, Jules’ investors are strongly suggesting that she hire an experienced CEO to run the company.

While briefcase-toting Ben amiably adjusts to the new technology and an entirely different workplace environment, his younger, Millennial cohorts (Adam DeVine, Christina Scherer, Zack Perlman, Jason Orley, Nat Wolff) discover what they can learn from his respectful, avuncular wisdom and patient dedication.

Specializing in trendy, intelligent, female-centric comedies, Nancy Meyers’ light touch is empathetic and insightful. Her three-dimensional characters are faced with real-life choices, and her casting is spot-on: unobtrusively observant Robert De Niro understands Anne Hathaway’s inner struggle. Their engaging chemistry and generation-spanning camaraderie is apparent.

On a nuanced romantic level, DeNiro responds to Rene Russo, the company’s massage therapist, whom he takes on a unique “first date.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Intern” is a sweetly accessible, sparky 7, a charming crowd-pleaser.



“The Martian”

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


Back in 1979, Ridley Scott stunned moviegoers with “Alien.” Now the visual storyteller returns to outer space – with a super-suspenseful saga of an astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars.

When a colossal dust storm forces the Ares 3 crew to abort their Mars surface exploration, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders a hasty evacuation, believing their crewmate, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has been killed by flying debris.

But he’s alive, as satellite photography soon reveals. So it’s up to NASA director Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and his cohorts at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to figure out how to help Watney stay alive in the habitation module and rescue him before his food supply runs out.

Fortunately, Watney is a resourceful botanist and courageous problem-solver. After removing the shrapnel lodged in his torso, he’s faced with basic survival tasks and the necessity of perseverance while facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

“I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” he declares – and proceeds to improvise and innovate, showing a disarmingly acerbic sense of humor. That’s evident when he runs out of ketchup and sprinkles crushed Viocodin on his potatoes. But there are always unforeseen catastrophes.

Screenwriter Drew Goddard (“World War Z”) has adapted Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, as director Ridley Scott meticulously delineates Watney’s ingenuity in his struggle to endure. He’s a plausible Robinson Crusoe, tossing around geek speak terms like hexadecimals and orbital trajectories.

Filmgoers may recall Matt Damon did an uncredited ‘bit’ as a stranded astronaut in “Interstellar” but, here, his charming, utterly convincing performance propels the drama on a desolate planet.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover and Macenzie Davis score as supportive scientists – with a nod to “Lord of the Rings” – while Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie comprise the Ares 3 team.

Reminiscent of solo tales like “Gravity,” “Cast Away” and “Moon,” it should certainly engender enthusiasm for the future of space travel, as NASA strives to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

FYI: Although Ridley Scott invited author Andy Weir to visit the set during filming in Hungary and Jordan, he declined, confessing, “I’m afraid of flying.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Martian” is an exhilarating 8 – an enthralling sci-fi adventure.



Susan Granger’s review of “Everest” (Universal Pictures)


I’m terrified riding the chairlift at Vermont’s Stratton Mountain, so climbing the world’s highest mountain in the Himalayas was never on my bucket list. And I suspect that watching this terrifying, ultimately tragic trek should discourage others.

Riffing off Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” screenwriters William Nicholson (“Unbroken”) and Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”), director Baltasar Kromakur (‘2 Guns”) and cinematographers Salvatore Totino (“The Da Vinci Code”) and Kent Harvey (“Lone Survivor”) focus on the nerve-wracking conditions that led to the death of eight climbers on May 10, 1996.

Cautious, compassionate Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) runs a mountaineering outfit called Adventure Consultants, along with his logistics coordinator (Emily Watson) and fellow guide (Sam Worthington).  Back home in New Zealand, Rob’s wife (Keira Knightley) is pregnant with their first child.

Hall’s clients include Krakauer (Michael Kelly), writing a travel article; Texas pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), who paid $65,000 for the trip and communicates with his wife (Robin Wright); Seattle mailman Doug Hansen (John Kawkes), tackling the summit for a second time to inspire schoolchildren; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese woman who has ascended six of Earth’s seven major peaks.

Rival guides are leading another group up on the same day: genial, gung-ho American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose Seattle-based firm is called Mountain Madness, and mucho-macho Russian Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Sigurdsson).

“It’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude,” Fischer insists.

Embarking from Katmandu, Nepal’s congested capital, they traverse gaping crevasses on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. But once they get up to Hillary’s Step, the final 40-foot wall that’s approachable only by a narrow, single-file path, overcrowding becomes a problem, particularly when they’re battered by an unexpectedly ferocious snowstorm.

While there’s continuing fascination with Everest, in my opinion, the Sherpas are really the unsung heroes. And “The last word always belongs with the mountain.”

FYI: While some filming was done in Nepal’s foothills, most took place in Italy’s Dolomites.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Everest” is an arduous, intensely atmospheric 8 – with spectacular, vertigo-inducing cinematography.