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“Effie Gray”

Susan Granger’s review of “Effie Gray” (Adopt Films)

 

Since proper Victorian society would not tolerate homosexuality or divorce, it was truly scandalous when young Euphemia “Effie” Gray left her husband, influential art critic John Ruskin, after a loveless six-year marriage for Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.

Teenage Effie’s (Dakota Fanning) story begins in Scotland in 1848, when she marries Ruskin (John Wise). Arriving in London, Effie discovers to her dismay that they’re to live with his prim, domineering parents (Julie Walters, David Suchet).

Worse yet, after viewing lovely Effie’s naked body, Ruskin coldly refuses to consummate their marriage.

At a Royal Academy of Arts dinner, Ruskin supports the new Pre-Raphaelite movement, convincing the President of the Academy, Sir Charles Eastlake (James Fox), to allow young artists, like John Millais (Tom Sturridge), to exhibit there.

That same night, rejected Effie is befriended by Eastlake’s outspoken wife, Elizabeth (Emma Thompson), who recognizes Effie’s naïveté and angst, eventually serving as her confidante.

As time goes by, the Ruskins travel to picturesque Venice, as chaste Effie rebuffs an ardent Italian; then to rain-soaked, rural Scotland, where Millais paints Ruskin’s portrait. That sexually suppressed, still-virginal Effie and sympathetic Millais will wind up together seems inevitable.

(Although it’s not depicted on-screen, Effie and Millais married and had eight children.)

Written by Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility”) and directed by Richard Laxton (BBC’s “Burton and Taylor”), it’s a dreary historical costume drama that never probes into repressed Ruskin’s obviously dysfunctional sexuality, except to indicate that he masturbates in their marital bed.

John Wise (Emma Thompson’s real-life husband) is far too old to play Ruskin, who was only nine years older than Effie. Middle-aged Wise is 23 years older than still child-like Dakota Fanning, who adopts an upper-class British accent although Effie reportedly spoke with a Scottish brogue.

Adding to the intrigue, the film’s release was delayed by lawsuits, alleging that the script was plagiarized from earlier dramatizations of the same story; eventually, Thompson won in court.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Effie Gay” is a stultifying 6. It’s far too timid and tasteful for its own good.

“GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”

Susan Granger’s review of “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (Music Box Films)

 

For Orthodox Jews in Israel, divorce is decided not in civil court but by a triumvirate of rabbinical judges.

In order for a wife to obtain one, her husband must consent – and the ordeal of Viviane Amsalem vividly illustrates this patriarchal tyranny.

After bearing four children and enduring decades of an unhappy marriage, Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) has left her home and moved in with her brother and overbearing sister-in-law.

For three years, she has attempted to obtain a “gett,” which is permission to dissolve her marriage, but her taciturn, religiously devout husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) steadfastly refuses.

Since childhood, Viviane has been trained to obey authoritarian men, and Elisha’s stalling tactics delay her agony as weeks and months turn into years. Ignoring one summons after another, he’s intractable as she becomes more embittered.

Filmed exclusively in the claustrophobic courtroom and its stark antechamber, Viviane is represented Carmel Ben Tovim (Menasche Noy), the son of a distinguished rabbi who has broken with family tradition, while Elisha is represented by his older brother, Rabbi Shimon (Sasson Gabay).

Eventually, various inept and/or hypocritical witnesses are called to testify about their marital relationship, facing a judicial trio, called Beth din, headed by Rabbi Salmion (Eli Gorstein).

Utilizing countdown title cards and extreme close-ups, this bitter farce and heart-wrenching drama focuses on Viviane, representing the basic women’s rights issue in Israel, which is supposedly a democracy.

Born in Beersheba, Israel, actress/director/writer Robit Elkabetz, working with her writer/director brother Shlomi Ekabetz, conceived this thought-provoking feature as the conclusion to a trilogy, which includes “To Take a Wife” and “7 Says,” films ostensibly inspired by the life of their mother. It was a Golden Globe nominee and Israel’s submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is an embattled, infuriating 8, epitomizing the concept of male entitlement.

 

“The Gunman”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Gunman” (Open Road)

 

Since Sean Penn’s name is above the title – and he’s also credited as co-writer and producer – this globe-trotting thriller qualifies as a vanity project, designed to propel him into Liam Neeson territory as another aging-but-tough action hero.

Set in 2006, the prologue introduces ex-Special Forces mercenary Jim Terrier (Penn) and his idealistic doctor girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When his supervisor Felix (Javier Bardem), who has the hots for Annie, dispatches Jim to kill the DCR’s Minister of Mining (Clive Curtis), he’s forced to flee the country, leaving Annie behind.

Eight years later and suffering from head trauma, Jim wearily returns to Africa on a water project and discovers that now he’s been targeted for assassination. The obvious suspect is Felix, now married to Annie, but it could also be his former boss Cox (Mark Rylance), as dangerous hitmen pursue him London to Gibraltar to Barcelona.

(While there’s a climactic showdown at a bullfighting ring, the closing-credits acknowledge that bullfighting has been banned in Catalonia since 2012.)

Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 2002 novel, “The Prone Gunman,” it’s been adapted by Don MacPherson, Pete Travis and Penn. French director Pierre Morel (“Taken,” “Transporter”) makes sure that it reeks with an all-too-familiar, mucho macho reality. Not surprisingly, scantily clad Italian actress Jasmine Trinca is given a purely ‘reactive’ role. It’s a gritty, generic ‘guy’ thing from the get-go.

In recent years, two-time Oscar-winner Sean Penn – for “Mystic River” (2003) and “Milk” (2008) – has devoted himself to social activism – a politically-aware passion made obvious with topical tirades on the plight of refugees, atrocious corporate-government collaboration and a plea for a global humanitarian awareness.

But he’s not above stripping for showering and surfing, deliberately revealing bulging biceps and an impressively buff torso.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Gunman” is a predictably tiresome 5, filled with bloody fistfights, formulaic shoot-outs and picturesque chases, signifying very little.

“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

If you liked “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2012), you’ll enjoy the sequel.

As it begins, the exuberant proprietor Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) and resident-turned-partner Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) are in San Diego, pitching company called Evergreen, run by Ty Burley (David Strathairn), for financing to expand the residential facilities.

Meanwhile in India, elaborate plans are underway for Sonny to marry his fiancée Sunaina (Tena Desae). Enterprising Evelyn (Judi Dench) has become a successful textiles buyer and is ardently pursued by shy, lovelorn Douglas (Bill Nighy), who turns out to be Jaipur’s most inept tourist guide.

At the same time, affection-starved Madge (Celia Imrie) is torn between two wealthy lovers, while Norman (Ronald Pickup) is trying to stabilize his relationship with Carol (Diana Hardcastle).

Adding to the confusion, there are two new guests: Lavinia Beach (Tamsin Greig) says she’s checking-out the facilities as a retirement home for her mother, while Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) claims to be a novelist. But ambitious, entrepreneurial Sonny suspects that he’s really an inspector sent by Evergreen. And when Guy starts courting Sonny’s widowed mother (Lillete Dubey), chaos reigns.

Expanding his original adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel about financially-challenged British pensioners who have “outsourced” their remaining years, Ol Parker’s segmented screenplay juggles so many diverse characters, contrived storylines and picturesque glimpses into colorful Indian culture that sometimes it’s hard to keep track.

But John Madden’s direction stirs the subplots – emotionally and physically – resulting in an amicable, feel-good diversion for audiences of a certain age.

True to form, Maggie Smith gets the best lines, including giving an American tart instructions about how to make a proper cup of tea and uttering succinct put-downs like, “Just because I’m looking at you when you talk, don’t think I’m listening – or even interested.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a satisfyingly soapy 7, culminating in a gloriously pseudo-Bollywood dance spectacle.

“Insurgent”

Susan Granger’s review of “Insurgent” (Lionsgate/Summit)

 

This highly-anticipated sequel to last year’s “Divergent” is set in a dystopian futuristic Chicago, where society is rigidly divided into five factions, according to skill and aptitude: Amity (peaceful), Abnegation (selfless), Candor (honest), Dauntless (brave) and Erudite (intelligent) – with the dispossessed Outsiders, known as Factionless.

They’re supervised by megalomaniacal Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who discovered a mysterious, five-sided box containing information from the founders of the new civilization. She’s sure it’s the answer to what she perceives as the Divergent dilemma. Divergents are considered dangerous because they have attributes of multiple factions. Problem is: she needs a Divergent to open it.

Meanwhile, the reluctant Divergent heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), is on the run with other rebels. Having lost her parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) in a recent battle, she’s haunted by nightmares, filled with guilt and grief.

Along with a new, short haircut, Tris has a seemingly meek brother. Caleb (Ansel Elgort), whose allegiances are shifting; Candor pal Christina (Zoe Kravitz); conniving frenemy Peter (Miles Teller); and hunky protector, known as Four (Theo James), whose murky past is revealed as part of the plot.

Adapting Veronica Roth’s derivative YA trilogy, three screenwriters (Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback), along with director Robert Schwentke (“The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “R.E.D.”), have crafted a meandering, action-packed sci-fi saga – that’s perhaps too kinetic. SIMs (hallucinatory simulations) and breathless chase scenes abound, including a memorable one involving train-hopping.

Formidable Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer make cameo appearances, perhaps foreshadowing bigger roles in the third and fourth movies that split the concluding novel, “Allegiant” into two parts.

And there are new additions: British model-turned-actress Suki Waterhouse, Rosa Salazar, Emjay Anthony, Jonny Weston and Keiynan Lonsdale. And a techno soundtrack.

But it’s Shailene Woodley (“The Spectacular Now,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “The Descendants”) whose angst-riddled close-ups propel the obvious plot, along with intense stunt work and visual effects. Plus there’s that huge, electric fence that surrounds the entire city.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Insurgent” is a fast-paced 5 – a “Hunger Games” wannabe.

“Run All Night”

Susan Granger’s review of “Run All Night” (Warner Bros.)

 

Now that the “Taken” series has run its course, Liam Neeson is back with this action-packed saga of an aging enforcer for the Brooklyn Mob, a tough guy once known as “The Gravedigger.”

“I’ve done some terrible things in my life,” admits conscience-stricken Jimmy Conlon (Neeson), an alcoholic loner whose estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) is a family man with two daughters and a third child on the way.

Jimmy’s only friend is his ruthless boss, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). They grew up together – with Shawn now rich, respectable and ready to retire.

Problem is: working as a limo driver, Mike is an innocent bystander when Shawn’s cokehead son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) commits a reckless drug-related murder. When Danny is killed in a subsequent shootout, Shawn blames Jimmy, so he and Mike are forced to go on the run from corrupt NYPD cops, the Albanian gangsters and Shawn’s hired hitman, Price (hip-hop artist Common).

Vincent D’Onofrio appears periodically as a homicide detective who has spent the past 30 years trying to put Jimmy behind bars for various crimes. And grizzled Nick Nolte plays Jimmy’s brother, another professional killer.

Collaborating again with Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Sera (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop”), Liam Neeson does his best with the contrived, improbable script by Brad Ingelsby (“Out of the Furnace”) which formulaically unfolds during one single night.

Filmed on location in New York, the frantically-edited chase goes from Madison Square Garden during a Rangers vs. Devils game through the subway and trains systems into different boroughs, utilizing tracking and aerial panning.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Run All Night” is a gritty, fast-paced 4 – that’s quickly forgettable.

“Salt of the Earth”

Susan Granger’s review of “Salt of the Earth” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

One of the most dazzling documentaries ever, the Oscar-nominated “Salt of the Earth” chronicles the work of humanistic photographer Sabastiao Salgado – as seen through the eyes of his son, Juliano, and filmmaker Wim Wenders.

This unique visual odyssey into “the heart of darkness” begins as Salgado comments on one of his most recognized images, a shot of 50,000 men in the vast Serra Pelada gold mine that formed part of the indigenous “Workers: Archeology of the Industrial Age” series, published in 1993.

Born in the Brazilian mining town of Minas Gerais, Salgado studied economics, working with the World Bank in France in 1969 – after the political unrest of Brazil’s military coup. Seeking artistic fulfillment, he and his wife, Lelia, then left for Niger in 1973, when he launched his concept of picturing nobility amid suffering and deprivation.

“We humans are a terrible animal; we are extremely violent,” Salgado notes. “Our history is a history of war; it’s an endless story.”

Determined to live with the people he was photographing with his Canon, Salgado obviously empathized with them, demonstrating a deep understanding of their dire situation. This series went on to include “Migrations” (2000) and “Sachel: the End of the Road” (2004).

Bitterly disillusioned about mankind’s salvation, Salvado eventually returned to Brazil, where he found his family’s once-verdant ranch in Aimores parched by draught. Working with Leila, he launched an experimental program of reforestation, conservation and education, which became “Instituto Terra,” a model for similar efforts worldwide.

That inspired his most recent project, “Genesis,” encompassing pristine areas of Earth that have retained their primordial characteristics: Siberia’s Wrangel Island, Amazonia and Papua New Guinea.

Berlin-based filmmaker Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas,” “Wings of Desire”) is one of the most important auteurs to emerge from the “New German Cinema” period in the 1970s. Wisely, he films this cinematic revelation mostly in black-and-white, matching Salvado’s starkly haunting photographic eye.

Film buffs will rejoice that many of Wenders’ early films, long out-of-circulation, are now available on DVD through the Criterion Collection.

In English, French and Portuguese, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Salt of the Earth” is a magnificent 9, filled with indelible imagery.

“Cinderella”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cinderella” (Disney)

 

Based on Charles Perrault’s 1698 “Cendrillon, or the History of the Glass Slipper,” this live-action extravaganza re-imagines the romantic folk tale for the 21st century.

As the story begins, 10 year-old Ella (Eloise Webb) is living happily with her merchant father (Ben Chaplin) and devoted mother (Hayley Atwell), who urges her to “have courage and be kind.”

Years later, after her mother’s death, Ella’s father marries haughty, mean-spirited Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) who has two vain daughters: Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger).

After he dies on a business trip, now-grown Ella (Lily James) is treated like a scullery maid and banished to the attic where she befriends the house mice. But she doesn’t lack self-esteem, as evidenced by her chance encounter with Prince Kit (Richard Madden) while riding her horse in the forest.

Eager to see his son married, the ailing King (Derek Jacobi) hosts a ball, inviting all eligible women in the land. But the only way Ella can attend is with the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), who weaves the necessary magic, transforming Ella’s tattered pink gown into butterfly-encrusted blue.

There’s the familiar fantastical pumpkin coach, glistening glass slippers and frantic flight at the stroke of midnight – with the Prince in dogged pursuit.

Faithfully adapted by Chris Weitz and Aline Brosh McKenna, it’s impeccably cast and eloquently directed by Kenneth Branagh, who emphasizes the importance of courage, kindness – and forgiveness.

FYI: Lily James and Sophie McShera co-star on PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” in which Lily plays aristocratic Lady Rose while McShera is the ambitious kitchen assistant Daisy. And Richard Madden is notable as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” King of the North Robb Stark.

While three-time Oscar-winner Sandy Powell creates sumptuous costumes, Dante Ferretti’s production design dazzles, Patrick Ledda’s visual effects entice and Haris Zambarloukos‘s cinematography is impeccably idealized, it’s a shame that Disney didn’t include more of the memorable “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” music from its own whimsical 1950 animated version.

Adding to the overall enjoyment, this film is preceded by the animated short “Frozen Fever.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Cinderella” is an elegant, enchanting 8 – with the song “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” over the end credits.

“The Lovers”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lovers” (IFC Films)

 

Whatever could go wrong during the making of Roland Joffe’s action/adventure/romance – did.

Unfolding across multiple centuries and continents, this exotic epic begins in India with an ancient legend about a set of gold, serpentine rings that signify true love. According to the mythology, lovers united by the two halves of the magical ring are destined to be together forever.

Cut to contemporary times, when Jay Fennel (Josh Hartnett), a marine archeologist, goes unconscious as the result of an underwater diving accident in which he rescued his wife Laura (Tamsin Egerton). They were exploring the wreckage of an 18th century merchant ship that sank on the Great Barrier Reef.

As Jay lies in a comatose dream state in a Boston hospital, his subconscious mind goes back to 1778 in Bombay, when he was a Scottish soldier named James Stewart. India was under Colonial rule back then.

During some inexplicable Anglo-Maratha conflict involving the British East India Company, the Governor (Shane Briant) dispatches James on a perilous mission, during which he become romantically involved with a female warrior, Tulaja Naik (Bollywood superstar Bipasha Basu), who is destined to betray the man she loves.

Working from a story by Ajey Jhankar, writer/director Roland Joffe (“The Killing Fields,” “The Mission”), spent many years on this convoluted project, which was previously called “The Invaders,” then “Singularity.”

Originally, American actor Brendan Fraser was to play the lead with actress Neve Campbell as his wife. As years passed and financing faltered, they dropped out. Filming took place in Queensland, Australia, and Chambal, Orchha and Gwalior in the state of Madhya Pradesh – with additional scenes added in London.

According to Bipasha Basu’s publicist, this is her first English-language film, and she was encouraged to take the part of the warrior by Hilary Swank when they met at various international film festivals.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lovers” is a flailing 4, lacking any meaningful connection between the two timelines.

“Chappie”

Susan Granger’s review of “Chappie” (Columbia Pictures)

 

South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp catapulted to international acclaim with the subtly apartheid-themed “District 9” (2009), followed by the uneven health-care allegory, “Elysium” (2013).  Now he’s back with what looks like a dystopian update of the sci-fi “RoboCop” (1987).

In Johannesburg, the police have started to use mechanical crime fighters known as Scouts with remarkable success. They’re the invention of gentle, geeky Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), an artificial intelligence engineer who is now determined to develop one of his droids into a sentient creature.

That infuriates a highly competitive, bullying ex-military, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who has devised a monstrous killing machine named The Moose, which their tech-company boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to activate.

Denied permission to pursue his passion, Deon steals discarded robotic parts and loads them in his van, only to be car-jacked and kidnapped by a trio of moronic criminals (Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Canbtillo) who owe money to a local crime lord.

While held captive, Deon convinces them to allow him to construct a sophisticated cyborg named Chappie. Childlike Chappie is eager to learn, yet left in the company of these thugs, he soon acquires a gangsta mentality and vocabulary.

But Deon is his ‘Maker’ and, as such, still exerts a major influence on his decision-making ability. Major conflict and carnage is not only predictable but inevitable.

Co-writing with his wife Terri Tatchell (“District 9”), director Neil Blomkamp’s convoluted concept continuously defies logic. It serves primarily as a showcase for the cyberpunk rap-rave group Die Atwoord, whose “I Fink U Freeky” has charted more than 61 million YouTube views.

Blomkamp’s favorite actor, Sharlto Copley voices Chappie and plays his physicality through motion capture and CGI, evoking unfortunate memories of “Star Wars” annoying Jar-Jar Binks.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Chappie” is a chaotic 5, as the stylish heavy-metal hardware short-circuits.