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“Extraterrestrial”

Susan Granger’s review of “Extraterrestrial” (IFC Midnight)

 

In case you were wondering, this indie horror flick has absolutely nothing in common with Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” Instead, it’s yet another lame supernatural saga, revolving around terrified teenagers who are staying at a cabin in the woods.

Written and directed by Colin Minihan and Stu Ortiz – a.k.a. the Vicious Brothers – it follows April (Brittany Allen) who plans to spend a romantic weekend with her boyfriend Kyle (Freddie Stroma) at her family’s cabin, a haven from her childhood which is going to be sold as part of her parents’ divorce. To her chagrin, Kyle invites three of his most obnoxious friends (Jesse Moss, Melanie Papalia, Anja Savcic) to join them.  After partying with beer and marijuana, they discover that a UFO has crashed nearby and they’re being watched by one of the craft’s survivors. When they attack and kill the alien, they incite immediate retribution by its crew mates. Predictably, a tree falls across the road, blocking their only way into town, and there are encounters with the Sheriff (Gil Bellows) and Travis (Michael Ironside), a cantankerous, gun-toting Vietnam veteran who is determined to protect his property.

Brittany Allen, who won a Daytime Emmy for “All My Children,” has little to work with, so she and the rest of the cast flounder in the trite assemblage of dumbed-down flotsam and campy jetsam from “The X-Files,” “War of the Worlds,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Alien,” “Cloverfield,” “Dark Skies,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Blair Witch Project,” even “Minority Report.”

To their credit, the Vicious Brothers (“Grave Encounters”) display some impressive tracking shots and the CGI is better than one might expect, given the low budget. But the repeated use of found-footage and the cynical, self-indulgent epilogue are inexcusable.

But on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Extraterrestrial” is an all-too-familiar 4, filled with clichéd predictability.

“Nightcrawler”

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

 

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Dan Gilroy’s sinister, neo-noir crime thriller as sociopathic Louis Bloom, who prowls the streets of Los Angeles at night in his turbo-charged Dodge Challenger with a police scanner, doing accident and crime-reporting.  He’s one of the many freelance video stringers, called “nightcrawlers.”  Bloom routinely sells his footage to Nina (Rene Russo), a local graveyard-shift TV news director who’s desperately hungry for ratings; she tells him that viewers want to see “urban crime creeping into the suburbs.”  Problem is: instead of remaining a passive bystander with a camera, Bloom brazenly begins to stage his own roadside carnage and re-arrange crime scenes – until he stumbles onto an apparent home invasion.

Scripted by Gilroy, who collaborated on “The Bourne Legacy” with his brother/director Tony Gilroy, it channels the kind of voyeurism that made “Rear Window” and “Blow-Up” popular. Making his directing debut, Dan Gilroy concocts a scathing media satire with its own inherent scary elements. At his side, cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”) adroitly captures the seedy, scary violence in the fabled City of Angels, culminating in its thrilling, tension-filled conclusion, punctuated by James Newton Howard’s pulsating musical score.

Exuding creepiness, wiry, wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal (“Prisoners,” “Enemy”) embodies delusionary Bloom, an outsider who is driven to achieve some kind of self-empowering identity. Adding to the veracity, there’s Riz Ahmed, as Bloom’s nervous apprentice, and Bill Paxton, as a veteran videographer who voices the newsroom adage, “If it bleeds, it leads…” And it’s great that Dan Gilroy wrote a meaty part for his wife, Rene Russo; they met and married after making “Freejack,” a 1992 sci-fi action movie.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nightcrawler” is a dark, cynical 7, filled with savage, scathing commentary about our media’s relentless exploitation of violence.

“Saw”

Susan Granger’s commentary on the re-issue of “Saw” (Lionsgate)

 

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the original theatrical release of “Saw,” the gruesome, sadistic horror thriller that ignited a franchise is back in theaters for one week.

Encompassing physical and psychological torture, the story revolves around two men – Adam (Leigh Whannel) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) – who wake up in a locked public toilet that’s been abandoned for years. They’re chained by leg irons to opposite walls. Between them is a corpse drenched in blood. A clock on the wall says 2 o’clock.  Neither can remember how he got here. Their captor, diabolical John Kramer, nicknamed “Jigsaw,” has left them a tape-recorded message informing Dr. Gordon that he has to kill Adam by 6 o’clock or his wife and daughter will be murdered.  There’s also an unloaded gun that’s out-of-reach, two saws, a cell phone and two cigarettes. As the men desperately try to find a way out, they’re wondering who is the maniac behind their kidnapping and why did he trap them in this “test” or “game.” Meanwhile, two detectives (Danny Glover, Ken Leung) are trying to track down this vicious serial killer.

Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle and filled with so much unrelenting gore that it’s been dubbed “slasherporn,” “Saw” marked the first collaboration for screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannel and director James Wan. Together, they’ve since created the “Insidious” franchise, and Wan has gone on to direct high-profile films like “The Conjuring” and the upcoming “Fast & Furious 7.”

Since the seven installments in the “Saw” franchise have collectively grossed $874 million at the box-office worldwide, the Guinness Book of World Records has recognized it as the “Most Successful Horror Franchise” of all time.

“St. Vincent”

Susan Granger’s review of “St. Vincent” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Bill Murray is sneaks into your heart as Vincent, a crusty curmudgeon who lives with his Persian cat Felix in a run-down house in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.  When Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a newly separated mother, moves in next door, the moving van knocks down a tree branch that crashes into his ancient Chrysler convertible – and he’s furious.  As it turns out, she’s a harried nurse/technician who works long hours at the hospital, so her politely precocious 12 year-old son, Oliver (Jason Lieberher), winds up spending his after-school hours with unkempt, foul-mouthed Vincent, who demands to be paid as his bracingly unorthodox baby-sitter.

Vincent’s weekly routine revolves around sessions with Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian stripper/prostitute who charges by-the-hour, and his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife Sandy (Donna Mitchell), whom he dutifully visits at the swanky nursing home he can no longer afford. When he’s not with either of them, he’s drinking at a local bar or betting on the races at Belmont Park, where he artfully dodges the bookie (Terence Howard) to whom he owes a bundle.  Wherever world-weary Vincent goes, Oliver tags along, learning life lessons along the way – which he thoughtfully integrates into a pronouncement by his Catholic school teacher, Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), that there are potential saints among us, if only we look hard enough.

Adroitly avoiding being too schmaltzy, writer/director Theodore Melfi makes his feature film debut with this memorable star-vehicle for 64 year-old Bill Murray, whose command of physical comedy is nothing less than masterful. Murray absolutely nails this cantankerous, misanthropic slob and – like his performances in “Rushmore,” “Meatballs” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” – his playfulness shines when he’s paired with a youngster. Abandoning her usual loudmouth shtick, Melissa McCarthy reveals surprising maternal vulnerability.  Jason Lieberher’s serious soulfulness is endearing. Even Naomi Watts turns what could be a caricature into a sympathetic character.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “St. Vincent” is a slyly subversive 7. And Murray’s already generating Oscar buzz.

“Ouija”

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

 

Is it simply a board game or a tool to communicate with the supernatural world? That’s been the dilemma facing players since Ouija was first introduced in 1890 by Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond at their Kennard Novelty Company. According to folklore, when they asked the board what they should name it, it spelled out O-U-I-J-A, then G-O-O-D-L-U-C-K. Now, it’s become a psychological horror thriller.

The plot revolves around teenage Laine (British actress Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig), best friends since childhood. Since one of the cardinal rules about using the Ouija board is that no one should play alone, Laine is shocked to learn that’s just what Debbie was doing when she hung herself using a string of Christmas lights.  Propelled to investigate this gruesome event and find out exactly what happened, grieving Laine recruits her younger sister (Ana Coto), her boyfriend (Daren Kagasoff) and two pals (Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith) for a séance using the antique Ouija board that Debbie discovered in her attic. Sure enough, they make contact with the same malevolent spirit.  In addition, they track down a former resident of Debbie’s home, Paulina (Lin Shaye), now confined to a wheelchair in a mental institution.

Husband-and-wife team Stiles White and Juliet Snowden (“Knowing,” “The Possession”) crafted the low-budget screenplay with White making his directorial debut. Their objective was to utilize the flat board with its letters and numbers and its one movable part (called the “planchette”) to make it as spooky and scary as possible – with the full support of Hasbro, which now manufactures the game. Unfortunately, White relies on cheap jump scares and loud noises. Boo!

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ouija” conjures up a tedious 3. Born out of a desire to explain the seemingly inexplicable, the Ouija board remains enigmatic.

“Fury”

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

Not since Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) has there been a W.W.II picture as barbaric and brutal as David Ayer’s depiction of the physical and emotional horror that “boots on the ground” really represents.

Set in 1945, it revolves around the 2nd Armored Division that’s been in combat for years and is on its last reserve of manpower.  After slogging through Africa, to Normandy, across the Rhine and into Germany, the crew of the M4 Sherman tank dubbed “Fury,” led by Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), is exhausted. As their story begins, they’ve lost one of their original five squad members. He’s been replaced by a fresh-faced, raw recruit, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a former office clerk/typist who just finished basic training and has no fighting experience. If Norman cannot function as an integral part of the team, his ineptitude endangers everyone else. So Wardaddy must get him hardened and battle-ready in 24 hours. “Ideals are quiet. History is violent,” he explains. “We’re not here for right and wrong. We’re here to kill.”

Writer/director David Ayer (“Training Day,” “End of Watch”) is obsessed with the vulnerability of men and their visceral need for camaraderie. It’s all about characters and their relationships, a claustrophobic brotherhood in arms. Smart, swaggering, stoic Wardaddy is their acknowledged leader, muttering, “Best job I ever had.” A deeply religious man, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), the gunner, is always quoting scriptures; Grady “Gordo” Travis (Michael Pena) is the Mexican-American driver; and ordinance loader Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) is a Southern redneck.

In this bleak, heavy-handed scenario, the Americans are good guys; the Nazis are bad guys, particularly the fanatical SS units. The tanks roll through grimy muck and mud, as trucks shovel piles of dead bodies into mass graves. Above all, there is a pervasive sense of authenticity and consistency in emotional tone as Norman’s initial innocence is completely corrupted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fury” is an intensely savage 7. Mission accomplished.

“Dracula Untold”

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

 

After hundreds of Dracula movies, this is an origin story.  In 15th century Europe, the Turks were in conquering mode. Having been brutally conscripted into their army as a young boy, Vlad (Luke Evans), rules the Romanian kingdom of Transylvania. He is determined that his beloved wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), will live in peace. But when an emissary of Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) arrives and demands 1000 Transylvanian boys, including his son, as slave-soldiers, Vlad is desperate. Realizing his vulnerability, he turns to a ghoulish, mountain-dwelling demon (Charles Dance). In a Faustian deal, Vlad is empowered with superhuman strength and a vampire’s abilities for three days. If he can resist drinking human blood during that time, he will revert to his mortal form.  If not, he is condemned forever. You know what happens.

In their feature film debuts, Irish director Gary Shore and screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless have fashioned as a tragic prequel to Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula story. It attempts to humanize Vlad, who was later known as the Impaler because of his habit of skewering his victims: “Sometimes, the world no longer needs a hero, it needs a monster.”

Attempting to evoke empathy, Luke Evans (“The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug,” “Fast & Furious 5”) reflects the nobility of Vlad’s character and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his family and his people. But once Vlad becomes Count Dracula, all subtlety is lost. Computer-generated bats and other special effects reign supreme and all attempts at acting finesse are banished into the weird horror, visceral bloodlust and carnage.

Sadly, there is no humor, even when a campy, sniveling servant (Zach McGowan) grovels to do Dracula’s bidding and several characters incongruously utter the contemporary word, “Okay.”  And why the rating is PG-13, not R, is a mystery to me.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dracula Untold” is a visually murky, horror fantasy 5. Is it damning with faint praise to say that it doesn’t totally suck?

“Kill the Messenger”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kill the Messenger” (Focus Features)

 

Set in 1996 and based on the true story of an investigative reporter at the San-Jose Mercury News, this political thriller follows the trials and tribulations of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), whose discovery of the CIA’s covert role in arming the Nicaraguan Contras and spreading urban addiction to crack cocaine so alarmed the US Government officials that they made him the target of a virulent smear campaign.

While working for a small California newspaper, Webb is contacted by Coral Baca (Paz Vega), the seductive girl-friend of drug trafficker Rafael Cornejo (Aaron Farb). She’s furious that the government seized Cornejo’s property before he went to trial and, when he was acquitted, refused to give it back. She wants Webb to expose this heinous practice and, as enticement, she gives Webb a transcript of the Grand Jury testimony of drug smuggler Danilo Blandon (Yul Vasquez), who admits he was recruited by the DEA.  When Webb tracks down drug kingpin, Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) in prison in Managua, he learns the truth – but it’s off-the-record. As crusading Webb doggedly pursues one unsubstantiated insinuation after another, scooping major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, his obsessive sleuthing not only unsettles his editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and publisher (Oliver Platt) but also jeopardizes his relationship with his long-suffering wife (Rosemary DeWitt) and their three children.

Based on Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger about the rise and fall of Gary Webb, along with Webb’s own memoir, Dark Alliances, it’s predictably scripted by Peter Landesman and heavy-handedly directed by Michael Cuesta, best known for helming the pilot of the hit TV series “Homeland.”  Cuesta and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt evoke that same sense of tension and imminent danger, utilizing hand-held photography and intimate close-ups. While Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) embodies Webb’s indignation and intensity, his demise seems inevitable. And Cuesta’s use of sound bites and film clips jarringly veers into documentary territory.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kill the Messenger” is a suspenseful 7, focusing on the fate of yet another truth-seeking whistleblower.

“Left Behind”

Susan Granger’s review of “Left Behind” (Freestyle Releasing/Stoney Lake Entertainment)

Adapted by Paul Lalonde and John Patus, this is yet another incarnation of the prophetic narrative introduced in Jerry B. Jenkins’ and Tim LaHaye’s first best-selling novel.  The plot revolves around what happens to a small group of people following what Christians call the Rapture.

As it begins, Chloe (Cassi Thomson) has returned home from college for the weekend to celebrate the birthday of her pilot dad, Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage). But then Steele gets a last-minute assignment to take an overnight flight from New York to London. At least, that’s what he tells his wife Irene (Lea Thompson), who has become a Bible-toting, fundamentalist Christian. His real plans include a tryst with a sexy, blonde flight attendant, Hattie Durham (Nicky Whelan), and – to that end – he’s snagged U2 concert tickets. Pandemonium ensures when in the air and on the ground, people start disappearing. It’s the Rapture, fulfilling the Biblical prophecy that the righteous will ascend into heaven, while unbelievers are left behind.

Veteran stuntman-turned-director Vic Armstrong hasn’t a clue how to sustain tension between the airplane in the skies crossing the Atlantic and the chaos on Earth. Instead of pacing, he uses clichéd scares, like loud noises and characters or objects jumping out for no apparent reason. There’s an overabundance of expository dialogue in which almost every character explains who they are and their background. Yet Armstrong and his writers never delve into the provocative psychological tension that arises in a marriage when one spouse undergoes a religious conversion and the other is still in doubt. But, perhaps, that’s not surprising, since “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson executive produced.

Insofar as the acting, it’s abominable. None of the actors make their characters either empathetic or convincing. As a result, their frantic dilemma becomes more and more ludicrous. The same miraculous concept is handled more adroitly on HBO’s sci-fi series “The Leftovers” without the heavy-handed evangelical Christian propaganda.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Left Behind” is a 1 – one of the year’s worst. Faith-driven audiences deserve better.

“The Judge”

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

 

Teaming up together for the first time, Robert Duvall (Oscar winner for “Tender Mercies”) and Robert Downey Jr. (two-time Oscar nominee for “Chaplin” and “Tropic Thunder”) play father-and-son at-odds in this poignant courtroom psychodrama.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a glibly unscrupulous Chicago defense attorney whose marriage is crumbling when he’s summoned back to his idyllic Midwestern hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for his mother’s funeral. He’s greeted warmly by his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and mentally-challenged younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), but gets an icy, dismissive reception by his patriarchal father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), who has always disapproved of Hank’s flash-and-dash style. Immediately after the burial as Hank is ready to depart, his father is arrested and charged with the hit-and-run murder of Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), a scummy criminal whom the Judge had sentenced years earlier. Although Hank offers to defend him, the stubborn old man turns to a local yokel, C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), an antiques dealer/lawyer whose incompetence is obvious when he faces determined prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton).  Meanwhile at the Flying Deer Diner, Hank flirts with a sassy young bartender, Carla (Leighton Meester), only to discover to his chagrin that his high-school sweetheart, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), is her mother.

Scripted by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque from a story by director David Dobkin and Schenk, it’s filled with intensely complicated family dynamics which Dobkin – best known for comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “Shanghai Knights” and “Fred Claus” – unfortunately dilutes with expository dialogue and too many secretive subplots. Which is surprising since it was produced by Robert Downey Jr.’s production company, Team Downey, which he formed with his wife Susan, who previously served as an executive vice-president at Joel Silver’s company. In addition, at 141 minutes, it’s far too long.

FYI:  picturesque Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, stands in for Carlinville, Indiana, as the prototypical Norman Rockwell-type town with its annual Blueberry Festival.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Judge” is a sentimental 6, following a prodigal son from sin to redemption.