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“Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” (Sony/Columbia)

 

Since Kevin James’ “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” (2009) earned $146 million in the US alone, a slapstick sequel seemed inevitable.

No longer prowling the New Jersey shopping center, roly-poly, buffoonish Paul Blart (James) is now on patrol at the Wynn Las Vegas & Encore Resort. But he’s suffered some hard times.

Less than a week after getting married, his wife (Jayma Mays) filed for divorce. Then his mother (Shirley Knight) was run over by a milk truck. So when he receives an invitation to a security officers’ trade convention in Las Vegas, Paul and his UCLA-bound daughter Maya (Raini Rodriguez) head for Nevada. Seriously delusional Paul is hoping he’ll be asked to be the keynote speaker because of his Mall heroics.

At the Wynn Hotel, he meets the general manager, Davina Martinez (Daniella Alonso), and head of security, Eduardo (Eduardo Verastegui), while Maya becomes friends with the hotel valet, Lane (David Henrie).

At the same time, a wily thief (Neal McDonough) is ready to run off with the Wynn Las Vegas & Encore Resort’s priceless art collection, disguising his goons as members of the hotel staff. Needless to say, boorish Paul is on the job, if not his Segway, recruiting his security-guard buddies (Loni Love, Gary Valentine, Shelly Desai) to join his Taser-toting team for slapstick shenanigans.

Working from a pedestrian script by Kevin James and Nick Bakay, director Andy Fickman (“Parental Guidance”) plugs the Wynn property continually, including a glimpse of the lavish aquatic theater presentation “Le Reve” and a cameo of mogul Steve Wynn emerging from his tanning bed.

FYI: The first commercial film shot on Steve Wynn’s property, it’s also the first movie to qualify for Nevada’s new film tax credit, amounting to $4.3 million.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” is a tacky 2, as the obvious product placement and Kevin James’ buffoonish charm quickly run cold.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Susan Granger’s review of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (Disney/Marvel Studios)

 

Good News: If you’re looking for POW! BAM! SMASH! cartoonish action, you get your money’s worth.

Bad News: Juggling a kaleidoscope of superheroes, as Tony Stark/Iron Man says, “It’s long – Eugene O’Neill long.”

You’d better know your “Avengers” franchise history because this new installment begins mid-mission, as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) battle a battalion of H.Y.D.R.A. bad guys to capture Loki’s scepter with its powerful Infinity Stone.

What’s Ultron? A sparkly computer program, concocted as a global protection system by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. What emerges, instead, is a rogue, red-eyed, megalomaniacal A.I. colossus, drolly voiced by James Spader, mockingly humming Pinocchio’s “No Strings” anthem as a menacing mantra and viewing humans as the world’s biggest threat.

In the battle-riddled, Eastern European country of Slovenia, there’s subplot introducing ‘gifted’ twins: Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) who become elusive Quicksilver and mind-manipulating Scarlet Witch. Appearing mid-way, an angelic android, Vision (Paul Bettany), synthesizes the consciousness of Tony Stark’s devoted helpmate J.A.R.V.I. S.

Writer/director Joss Whedon punctuates the FX-driven mayhem with an ongoing flirtation between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, along with dream-like flashbacks showing the character conflict of each squad member confronting his/her flaws and/or failings.

There are glib quips, like Hawkeye’s pregnant wife’s earnest, “You know, I totally support your avenging…” and campy, irreverent humor when various Avengers try to lift Thor’s hammer.

For an exhausting 2½ hours, it’s repetitive sound and fury – yes, I mean cranky Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the S.H.I.E.L.D. carrier, along with Anthony Mackie as The Falcon. As always, there’s a hint of what’s to come during closing credits.

When Joss Whedon introduced this enormous Marvel assemblage to the press, he confessed, “I’m really tired of it.” Was he joking? I doubt it.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a spectacularly overstuffed 6 – with more spectacle than substance.

“The Water Diviner”

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

 

It’s not surprising that most actors yearn to become directors, and Russell Crowe (“Gladiator,” “Master and Commander”) has the clout to get the financing for this debut feature. I suspect he learned a lot and will not make the same mistakes the next time.

Northern Australian farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) lost three sons during the W.W. I Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915. After his grieving wife commits suicide four years later, he embarks on a tortured quest to find his sons’ remains and bring them back to be buried beside her in ‘hallowed’ ground.

Connor’s a “water diviner,” meaning he’s got a knack for finding underground water using dowsing rods. Using that mystical ability, he’s sure he can locate his fallen sons amid thousands of unmarked graves.

Arriving in Istanbul, he’s rebuffed by the British military. Undaunted, he settles into a local hotel, where he’s befriended the young son of a Turkish widow, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko). She finds brawny Connor attractive but her brutish brother-in-law is persistently trying to make her his second wife.

Admiring his persistence, an Australian official (Jai Courtney) and two Turkish officer (Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz) aid in his quest, despite the on-going war with the Greeks that Connor doesn’t understand.

The implausible, often incoherent screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios explains little of Turkey’s enduring feudal history, which makes continuity confusing. And their inclusion of a romantic subplot never evokes the viewer’s emotions, except anti-war sentiment when Connor bitterly notes, “I filled their heads with nonsense – God and King and country.”

Characterized by abrupt action beats, Crowe’s muddled direction lacks pacing; the melodramatic flashbacks of the Gallipoli bloodbath are repetitious. Wearing an Indiana Jones fedora, Crowe injects several chases – through the Turkish marketplace or galloping on horseback through the countryside. There’s even a visit to Istanbul’s legendary Blue Mosque – exquisitely photographed by Andrew Lesnie.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Water Diviner” is a poignant, somber 6, quenching your thirst for Crowe.

“Ex Machina”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ex Machina” (A24 Films)

 

Despite the hoopla over mega-franchise films, Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller is the most intriguing movie I’ve seen so far this year.

As it begins, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a geeky, 24 year-old computer programmer, wins a company ‘contest,’ entitling him to spend a week at the remote Alaska estate belonging to his legendary boss, the brilliant-but-elusive billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

Arriving at the mountain retreat by helicopter, Caleb makes his way into Bateman’s modernist, minimalist glass-and-steel compound; it’s a high-tech research facility, much of which is subterranean.

An exercise/fitness fanatic, alcoholic Nathan tries to put him at ease, but Caleb is astounded by the Jackson Pollock paintings and other fine art, along with Kyoto (Sonoya Mizuno), a beautiful, silent servant.

Caleb’s even more awestruck when he learns the purpose of his visit. He’s to take part in the Turing Test, named for British artificial intelligence guru Alan Turing and referenced in “Blade Runner” – because Nathan has created what he believes is a sentient robot. Her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Over the next few days, Caleb interacts with Ava, politely posing questions and evaluating her responses. As their sessions grow more and more ominous, the flirtatious, free-thinking android adapts to this stranger, slyly and seductively establishing the roots of a friendship and, perhaps, more.

That’s all you need to know. Revealing more would ruin the surprises and dilute the suspense.

Novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”) makes an auspicious directing debut in this chilling exploration of the human psyche – in a style eerily reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick.

Working on a $13 million budget, kudos to production designer Mark Digby, costumer Sammy Sheldon Differ and cinematographer Rob Hardy.

FYI: Seen in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Domhnall Gleeson is the son of Irish actor Brendan Gleeson; he’s starring in George Lucas’ upcoming “Star Wars.” Oscar Isaac is best known for “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Most Violent Year,” while Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is an ex-ballerina, last seen in “Anna Karenina,” and “A Royal Affair.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ex Machina” is an intense, mind-melding 9, derived from the Greek phrase “Deus ex machina,” or “god from the machine,” referring to a dramatic, problem-solving plot device.

 

“Age of Adaline”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Age of Adaline” (Lionsgate Films)

 

The concept is intriguing: what would life he like if you stopped aging at age 29? That’s what happens to Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively), who was born on New Year’s Day in San Francisco in 1908.

As the narration tell us: at age 29, Adaline, a grief-stricken widow, drowned in an automobile accident, after which she was struck by lightning. That ignited some bizarre scientific phenomenon which won’t be discovered until 2035. So she revived, only to discover that she was blessed/cursed by eternal youth.

Adaline understands that her never-changing looks causes complications. There are rewards, however, since she bought stock in a small company called Xerox at its inception.

By the 1950s, when the FBI get suspicious, she realizes she has to change her name and residence each decade, keeping everyone at an emotional distance. Except her now-elderly daughter (Ellen Burstyn) who serves as her only confidante.

Then romance kicks in. Elegant yet lonely Adaline, now called Jenny, works in the San Francisco city archive, where she’s spotted by Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a tech-wealthy historian/philanthropist. Maddeningly elusive when he persistently tries to court her, she eventually relents and agrees to visit his parents’ home for the celebration of their 40th anniversary.

Lo and behold – Ellis’ astronomer father (Harrison Ford) was her lovelorn suitor, years ago – and he immediately recognizes her, much to the chagrin of his dutiful wife (Kathy Baker).

Curious blending “Frankenstein,” “Dorian Gray” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz’s implausible melodrama is sensitively directed by Lee Toland Krieger, evoking nostalgia – with its essential authenticity augmented by Claude Pare’s production design and Angus Strathie’s vintage costumes.

While cool, calm Blake Lively (TV’s “Gossip Girl”) underplays enigmatic Adaline, what’s most memorable is Harrison Ford’s befuddled bewilderment.

FYI: Back in 2010, title role was originally offered to Katherine Heigl. When she turned it down, the script was sent to Natalie Portman, who also declined.

On the Granger Movie Gauge, “The Age of Adaline” is a fantastical 5 – yet perhaps too reserved and tastefully restrained for its own good.

“Child 44″

Susan Granger’s review of “Child 44” (Summit Entertainment/Central Partnership)

 

Perhaps there are some novels that should never be made into movies – which may explain why Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 suspenseful best-seller just doesn’t translate onto the big screen.

Set in the paranoid claustrophobia of late Stalin-era Russia, it revolves around Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a Ukrainian orphan who became the W.W. II hero who raised the flag over the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945.  Now, Leo works as an interrogator in the MGB (predecessor of the KGB), chasing alleged spies to get them to rat on other alleged traitors.

One day, he’s summoned to handle a case involving a child’s death, the son of a colleague. Superficially, it appears to be an accident by the train tracks, but it soon becomes obvious that it’s murder.

Problem is: Leo’s told that murder is a capitalist’s disease that does not exist in the U.S.S.R. And it’s not just one homicide; it’s a series of grisly, grotesque child killings that no one wants to acknowledge.

Heavy-handedly adapted by veteran screenwriter Richard Price (“The Color of Money”) and ploddingly directed by Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”), filmed on location in the Czech Republic, what should be a tension-filled thriller becomes mired in a multitude of undeveloped characters with too many clichéd subplots and incoherent complications.

Always a sturdy, reliable protagonist, Tom Hardy’s performance is weighed down by his overly thick accent. As his miserable, supposedly ‘unpatriotic’ schoolteacher wife Raisa, Noomi Rapace is burdened with motivations that continually change as the plot thickens. Which leaves Joel Kinnaman with the juiciest part as sniveling, cowardly agent Vassili.

Supporting roles are ably filled by Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine, Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, who does a couple of memorable scenes before disappearing for the final third of the film.

FYI: There was a brief international incident when this film was pulled from distribution in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus for so-called “historical inaccuracies,” but even that failed to arouse much interest.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Child 44” is a forbidding, forgettable 5. Read the book instead.

“Unfriended”

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

Like the ‘found footage’ of “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), this is a gimmick picture. It’s a cautionary tale of a group of high-school friends who become the target of an unseen cyber-stalker.

What makes it unique is that it’s shot while looking at a computer screen. The teenagers communicate through Skype with back-story information handled through texts and online searches. Even the soundtrack is comprised of tunes stored on one of the computers.

The stream-of-consciousness story takes place in real time on the Apple desktop of popular, virginal Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who starts to receive mysterious Facebook messages from the account of her former BFF Laura Barnes (Heather Sossamon), who committed suicide exactly a year earlier by shooting herself in a parking lot; Laura was humiliated when a prank video of her was anonymously posted on YouTube and circulated online.

Faced with this taunting, enigmatic entity seeking vengeance, Blaire is obviously conflicted. She says one thing to a friend on Skype, while she contradicts herself in text messages to someone else.

Multi-tasking Blaire’s on-line cohorts include her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), yuppie Adam (Will Peltz), wisecracking Ken (Jacob Wysocki), vain Jess (Renee Olstead), and volatile Val (Courtney Halverson).

Bazelevs writer/producer Nelson Greaves and Russian director Levan Gabriadze utilize the ubiquitous WiFi and social media to develop the horror movie theme, which is tediously similar to Agatha Christie’s thriller “And Then There Were None.”

Their point is that, while we use passwords to maintain the illusion of safety in our online spaces, they’re useless when creepy hackers take over, resulting in cyberbullying.

Surprisingly, what never occurs to any of the participants is that they can simply turn their computers off and take a break from the screaming hysterics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unfriended” is an unnerving, flashy 4, delving into internet-obsessed teens’ daily digital lives.

 

“Monkey Kingdom”

Susan Granger’s review of “Monkey Kingdom” (Disneynature)

 

This is the eighth Disneynature live-action eco-documentary – and one of the best.  Narrated by Tina Fey, it follows a toque macaque monkey in Sri Lanka on her journey up the social ladder.

Since Disney movie-makers routinely anthropomorphize animals, giving them names, the heroine is Maya. She and her simian troop live in abandoned Buddhist temple ruins, now overrun by jungle.

Poor Maya is at the bottom of the social order. Which means that – while Raja, the alpha male macaque, and a trio of his favored females can climb to the top of a fig tree and eat the ripest fruit – Maya and the other low-born must remain on the ground, foraging for scraps.

One fine day, male macaque named Kumar comes visiting. Tina Fey wryly dubs him a “hunky monkey.” Kumar is banished by Raja but not before impregnating Maya, who gives birth to a baby called Kip.

Soon afterwards, a rival band of macaques invades their Castle Rock habitat, exiling Maya’s tribe to fend for themselves as they’re forced to explore neighboring terrain, including a nearby town.

Using her ingenuity to care for her tiny son, feisty Maya finds her way into favor, particularly when Kumar returns to replace aging Raja as leader of the clan.

According to writer, co-director and producer Mark Linfield: “Maya is kind of like any female human, trying to do the best for her kid. But she’s got the weight of macaque society pressing on her as well. So she has to use her street smarts to get out of this sort of social straitjacket that she was in.”

What’s remarkable is how close Linfield’s crew could get to the primates over the 2½ years of filming, focusing on their recognizably human traits. Amplifying the effect is Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, which includes “The Monkees” TV theme song.

FYI: It’s quite family-friendly except for a few tense scenes that might briefly frighten preschoolers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Monkey Kingdom” is an engaging 8, combining education with entertainment – and proceeds from Disneynature documentaries help protect the natural world.

“Closer to the Moon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Closer to the Moon” (IFC Films)

 

In Bucharest in 1959, a disillusioned group of old friends from the WWII Jewish Resistance hijack a van delivering cash to the Romanian National Bank, staging the robbery so it looks like a movie shoot – which fascinates a young onlooker, a café waiter named Virgil (Henry Lloyd).

In time, the four men and a woman are arrested, tried in a kangaroo court and convicted. While waiting for their execution, they’re forced by the Securitate – a.k.a. Romanian secret police – to re-enact the robbery in a slyly anti-Semitic propaganda film depicting the crime.

Meanwhile – being in the right place at the right time – enables Virgil to become an eager assistant to an alcoholic Romanian film director (Allan Corduner) and, later, he’s the cameraman assigned to chronicle the re-enactment which is supervised by bumbling bureaucrats.

Exhibiting remarkable camaraderie, the intrepid Rosenthal gang, as they’re called, consists of Max (Mark Strong), the chief police inspector; Alice (Vera Farmiga), a political-science academic; Iorgu (Christian McKay), a history professor; Dumi (Tim Plester), a rocket scientist; and Razvan (Joe Armstrong), a respected journalist.

But what prompted them to steal bags of banknotes that were worthless outside of Romania? Was it a Zionist plot that failed? Was it a conspiracy to get money to send Jews to Israel? Why did they commit such a heinous crime – one they realized would inevitably lead to the death penalty?

Eventually, only Virgil will know the real answer to these questions, as flashbacks reveal a secret that the Communist authorities never discovered.

Based on a true story, the provocative, darkly comedic, absurdist drama is cleverly written and boldly directed by Nae Caranfil, who has chosen to have the cast – energetically propelled by Farmiga and Strong – speak English instead of Romanian.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Closer to the Moon” is a fascinating 7 – with glimpses of the real documentary over the closing credits.

“While We’re Young”

Susan Granger’s review of “While We’re Young” (A24 Films)

 

I suspect the extravagant praise lavished on Noah Baumbach’s films (“Frances Ha,” “Greenberg”) comes from those who can relate to the misery of snarky, neurotic New Yorkers.

This story begins pretentiously with quotations from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” Immediately, it becomes obvious that forty-somethings Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) regret that the fizz has gone out of their marriage. Most of their friends have become child-centric – and they obviously haven’t.

When he isn’t teaching filmmaking to a continuing-education class, Josh has been working on a socio-political documentary for the past 10 years, while Cornelia produces films with her famous documentarian father (Charles Grodin).

One night, after twenty-something Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) fawn over Josh’s lecture, he invites them to join him and Cornelia for dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

One encounter leads to another. As the self-involved older couple – Generation X’ers – become more and more infatuated with these insufferably energetic, Brooklyn hipsters, they feel as if they’re re-capturing their youth through the Millenials.

Not surprisingly, Jamie is an aspiring documentarian whose integrity and authenticity is immediately questionable; his obnoxious behavior reveals his relentlessly calculating penchant for exploitation. Darby? She makes almond/avocado-flavored ice cream.

Perhaps Woody Allen could have made their anxiety in parallel situations funny, but Noah Baumbach’s bantering goes off on strange tangents.  After a predictably disastrous weekend visit to a commune with a whacked-out guru, there’s even a serious detour into the ethics of documentary filmmaking.

What does work is Baumbach’s casting: the talented ensemble is far better than the superficial material they’re working with. Ben Stiller nails frantic, middle-aged frustration, while Naomi Watts is relentlessly supportive. Adam Driver epitomizes sleazy selfishness – until Amanda Seyfried eventually catches on.

In his few scenes, Charles Grodin stoically evokes renowned filmmakers like Albert Maysles and/or Frederick Wiseman; his is the one character that’s totally authentic.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “While We’re Young” is a dreary, doleful 4, an irrelevant waste of time.