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“Magic in the Moonlight”

Susan Granger’s review of “Magic in the Moonlight” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Confession: I can’t remember seeing a movie from writer/director Woody Allen that I didn’t like. Some are better than others, like “Blue Jasmine” (2013), but they’re all intriguing in their own way.  This entrancing, new romantic comedy falls kind of in the middle.

Set in 1928 on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France, the plot revolves around the efforts of Europe’s most acclaimed magician to debunk a beautiful, young American from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who purports to be a spiritual medium.  Responding to a plea from his longtime friend/fellow conjurer Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), acerbic Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) arrives at the Riviera villa of gullible Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), who is eager to reconnect with her late, Pittsburgh industrialist husband via séances conducted by another houseguest, clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who’s traveling with her protective mother (Marcia Gay Harden). In the meantime, Grace’s sappy son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), is determined to woo and win Sophie’s heart, while Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) in Provence provides wise counsel.

Obviously inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” Woody Allen envisions cynically debonair Stanley Crawford as misanthropic Henry Higgins, whose dyspeptic demeanor is so arrogant and brash that he alienates everyone with whom he converses. Indeed, as an astute illusionist, Stanley’s so determined to slyly unmask Sophie, proving she’s a fraud that he doesn’t realize he’s succumbed to her “magical thinking.”  In this role, Colin Firth seems to be channeling the late, great Rex Harrison, a similarity that Allen subtly acknowledges, evoking memories of “My Fair Lady.” As for Emma Stone, she plays sweet Sophie’s hand so close to the vest that one wonders if, perhaps, she could be the real deal.

Gloriously photographed by Darius Khondji with opulent period costumes by Sonia Grande, burnished sets by production designer Anne Seibel, and an endearing American songbook soundtrack, it’s a joy to behold.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Magic in the Moonlight” is a whimsical, ephemeral 8, airily appealing to those who loved “Midnight in Paris” (2011).

“The Purge: Anarchy”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Purge: Anarchy” (Universal Pictures)

 

When you hear audience members cheering for the ferocious killers-on-the-rampage in this ramped-up sequel to last summer’s unexpected sci-fi horror hit, it makes you really wonder about our cultural values today – and society in general.

Set in Los Angeles circa 2023, the action once again takes place during the annual Purge, a 12-hour period every March in which ghoulishly-masked participants can commit all kinds of crimes (rape, theft, murder, etc.) without fear of reprisal or punishment from the government that calls itself the New Founding Fathers of America. Psychologists explain that “having a good cleanse” allows ordinary citizens to indulge their basest aggressive instincts, a cathartic which serves to keep the crime rate and population growth in check for the rest of the year, cut the unemployment rate and enrich the coffers of arms manufacturers.

Urging each other to “stay safe” are an impoverished waitress/single mother, Eva (Carmen Ejogo), and her rebellious 16 year-old daughter Cali (Zoe Soul), who discover to their horror that Eva’s elderly father (John Beasley) has sold his life to an organization that arranges private Purging parties for wealthy thrill-seekers. Then there’s a stranded, squabbling yuppie couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez). Unfortunately, they all get caught outside during the mayhem-filled night, so it’s up to a stoic loner, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a police sergeant seeking vengeance on those responsible for the death of his young son, to shelter them in his weapons-laden, armor-plated car which, predictably, becomes disabled, forcing the terrified group to try to make their way on foot through the carnage to seek fortified shelter.

Once again written and directed by James DeMonaco, the plot moves out of a barricaded suburban home-invasion scenario and onto mean, urban streets, delving into racial and class divides, twisting surprisingly when a Black Panther’ish radical, Carmelo (Michael K. Williams, clad in John Lennon spectacles and a beret), leads militant, anti-Purge followers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Purge: Anarchy” is a simplistic, survivalist 3, satirizing American bloodlust.

“Planes: Fire & Rescue”

Susan Granger’s review of “Planes: Fire & Rescue” (Disney)

 

Anthropomorphizing automobiles, trains, ships and planes has become a Disney specialty. This time, the comedic adventure is set in a Western wilderness area known as Piston Peak National Park.

When the plucky, single-engine prop plane known as Dusty Crophopper (voiced by comedian Dane Cook) discovers that his once-trusty gear box is wearing out, it’s just as he’s preparing for the fabled Corn Fest. When he realizes that there’s no available replacement for his kind of older model, he’s crushed.  After a couple of foolhardy escapades which endanger not only himself but also others, he decides to leave the racing circuit to become a certified fire fighter and join stern, no-nonsense Blade Ranger (voiced by Ed Harris) and his over-the-hill aircraft squadron. The Smokejumper team includes the feisty air tanker Lil’ Dipper (voiced by Julie Bowen from TV’s “Modern Family”), the heavy-load helicopter Windlifter (voiced by Wes Studi), the ex-military transport Cabbie (voiced by Capt. Dale Dye) and the folksy, vintage fire truck Mayday (voiced by Hal Holbrook), cursing “Oh, Chevy!” So when an out-of-control wildfire threatens a newly reopened luxury hotel, Grand Fusel Lodge, that’s filled with tourists, they predictably swing into heroic action, and Dusty learns how to be a team player.

Generically scripted with sadly stereotypical sexism by director Bobs Gannaway and his co-writer Jeffrey M. Howard, it re-works “The Little Engine That Could” with touches of “Thomas the Tank Engine.” To achieve a kind of surreal believability, the animators put eyes on the vehicles’ windscreens and mouths in the vent space beneath the propellers – and the resulting visuals are stunning, particularly in 3D.

Soaring far over the head of its intended audience, there’s an extended parody of the old TV show “CHiPs,” dubbed “CHoPs,” which is obviously intended to amuse the parents who have accompanied their children, along with rueful lines like, “She left me for a hybrid. I didn’t hear it coming.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Planes: Fire & Rescue” is a spiraling 6, aimed primarily at boys from four-to-eight years old.

“Sex Tape”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sex Tape” (Columbia Pictures/Sony)

 

In the prologue, Annie (Cameron Diaz) blogs incessantly about the spicy sex life she enjoyed with her husband Jay (Jason Segel) when they met in college, when they first copulated, the second time they copulated and right on up to the time they married and had children (Sebastian Hedges Thomas, Giselle Eisenberg).  Then suburban life – and exhaustion – robbed them of carnal pleasure. So she comes up with the idea sending the kids to Grandma (Nancy Lenehan) overnight, during which time they make a three-hour sex tape, depicting all the anatomical positions in “The Joy of Sex.”

After that set-up, it’s all downhill. Predictably, the next morning, Jay forgets to erase their vigorous frolic and inadvertently uploads it to the elusive iCloud, where it’s distributed via gifted iPads to friends and family. Joined by their voyeuristic pals (Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper), they try to retrieve the iPads and then, toting their sleepy children along, they break into the San Fernando Valley headquarters of a sex-video website and are caught by the porn broker (Jack Black).

Idiotically scripted by Kate Angelo, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and sluggishly directed by Jake Kasdan (“Bad Teacher”), it’s a tame, tepid and terminally dull, never achieving its farcical potential. Its only redemption comes with the pivotal appearance of Rob Lowe who, back in 1988, starred in his own, real-life celebrity sex tape scandal. Here, he plays Hank Rosenbaum, Annie’s prospective boss, a narcissistic, coke-snorting toy-company CEO whose posh home is filled with paintings of his face superimposed on depictions of Disney cartoons.

As for visual nudity, forget it. Cameron Diaz plays peekaboo, revealing little, while Jason Segel, who went full frontal in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” also goes coy. While Diaz’s trim body is enviable, her face looks so Botox’d that it’s become a waxy mask, and Segel needs to spend some time toning his torso at the gym.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sex Tape” is a flaccid 3, frantically trying to combine family-friendly fun with a shallow sexcapade. It’s a total turn-off.

“Life Itself”

Susan Granger’s review of “Life Itself” (Magnolia Pictures)

 

Film critic Roget Ebert knew he wouldn’t live to see this documentary based on his 2011 memoir of the same name.  In a particularly poignant scene, he tells director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) that he knows that his thyroid cancer has metastasized to his spine, saying, “It is likely I will have passed when the film is ready.” Indeed, Ebert died in April, 2013, at age 70.

Filmed during what would be the last five months of Ebert’s life, he reveals his regret that he never got to say goodbye to his contentious ‘frenemy’ Gene Siskel, who concealed his brain cancer diagnosis back in 1998 out of fear that Disney would replace him on ABC’s “Siskel & Ebert.” That affected Ebert so much that he was determined to not to make the same mistake, even though numerous surgical procedures left him without a lower jaw and unable to eat, drink or speak.

Ebert’s wife Chaz is equally forthcoming, admitting for the first time publicly that she met Roger at Alcoholics Anonymous, not at a Chicago restaurant where they were reportedly introduced by columnist Ann Landers. Chaz also reveals she was not aware that Roger had signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” order until the day of his death.

Beginning with Ebert’s definition of cinema as “a machine that generates empathy,” this biopic covers Ebert’s career and personal life – from his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times to his popular television show and his final years, when he enthusiastically continued to post reviews.  While Ebert was both celebrated and criticized for his thumbs-up-or-down judgments, he was also the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Included in this narrative are interviews with Ebert’s director friends Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop”), whom Ebert championed, along with critics A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Richard Corliss of Time magazine.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Life Itself” is an unflinching, engrossing 8, an inspirational tribute to America’s most influential film critic.

“Third Person”

Susan Granger’s review of “Third Person” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Canadian writer/director Paul Haggis won an Oscar for “Crash” (2006) but this time, as he tries to repeat the ensemble cast/parallel plotlines formula, it doesn’t work as well.

In a posh Paris hotel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Michael (Liam Neeson), is working on revisions of his latest novel which has recently been rejected. As he writes, he’s haunted by whispers, saying “Watch me…” and tortured by thoughts of his estranged wife Elaine (Kim Basinger) back in America. His reverie is interrupted by the arrival of his quixotic mistress Anna (Olivia Wilde), a young ‘society’ journalist who likes to play erotic games.  In Rome, Scott (Adrien Brody), an American businessman who copies the collections of Italian fashion designers and has them duplicated in cheap sweatshops, becomes infatuated with Monika (Moran Atias), a Romanian immigrant he meets in the Bar Americano; she is trying to ransom back her kidnapped daughter being held by gangsters. And in New York, desperately distraught Julia (Mila Kunis) is accused of hurting her own son; a former soap opera actress, she’s working as a hotel maid to pay her impatient lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello), in an attempt to retrieve visitation rights to see the boy who is now living with his father Rick (James Franco), a famous abstract painter.

Utilizing surprisingly intimate dialogue and bizarre coincidences, Paul Haggis twists and turns these seemingly disconnected stories until they eventually intersect, but the banal payoff simply isn’t worth the wait. And some of the details – like how a crumpled scrap of paper dropped in a hotel suite in Paris winds up in another suite in New York – don’t ever make sense, even if everything’s being hatched in Michael’s imagination. One supposes that the connective thematic element is how a ‘third person’ is often interjected into a love relationship, requiring the pivotal condition of trust, but Haggis’ execution of this concept is confusing – to say the least.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Third Person” is a puzzling, implausibly fractious 5, requiring interminable patience and forgiveness.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (20th Century Fox)

 

Set 10 years after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), this sci-fi adventure takes place in California’s Bay Area, where genetically-enhanced, now-mature Cesar (Andy Serkis), is living in a thatched village with his mate (Judy Greer), who has just given birth, and their older son (Nick Thurston). Statesmanlike, Cesar has established a primitive, familial society, governed by strict cultural rules, like “Ape no kill ape,” taught by the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval).

Problem is: in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, humans are struggling to survive under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) after a global flu pandemic.  When an engineer, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his teenage son (Kobi Smit-McPhee) and doctor wife (Keri Russell), try to reach an old dam to tap into its desperately-needed hydro-electric power, they unwittingly venture into Cesar’s home territory. While Malcolm tries diplomatically to establish peaceful contact, one of his cohorts is trigger-happy, which infuriates Koba (Toby Kebbell), a chimp who still carries the physical and emotional scars of laboratory cruelty. So a full-scale war seems inevitable.

Scripted by Mark Bombeck, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, it’s directed by Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) as a mythic morality tale, tackling themes of loyalty, trust and co-existence.  Embodying intellectually enhanced Cesar and redefining acting in the digital age, Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings”) is the acknowledged master of motion-capture technology. Before production began, Serkis and the approximately 50 other actors who portray simians, worked in the woods of Vancouver, British Columbia, for three weeks to establish how they would move and communicate with each other, using grunts and sign language. Then Weta Digital recorded their facial expressions and movements, feeding the information into a computer that generates their remarkably lifelike simian characters. Contrast that with Charlton Heston’s “Planet of the Apes” (1968), in which apes were portrayed by actors in costumes and masks.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a visually dazzling, tension-filled 10 – with a third installment set for July, 2016.

“Rage”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rage” (RLJ Entertainment/Hannibal Classics)

 

Back in 2009, when Nicolas Cage discovered he owed the IRS $6.3 million in back taxes, his two houses in New Orleans, along with other properties, went into foreclosure. At one time, Cage owned 15 homes, including two castles (Midford in England and Schloss Neidstein in Etzelwang, Germany) and two Bahamian islands. Subsequently, the former Oscar-winner for “Leaving Las Vegas” has simply been collecting paychecks in one dim-witted action thriller after another. This is no exception.

After vowing to leave his gangster days in the past, Paul Maguire (Cage) has become a respectable real estate developer with a beautiful wife Vanessa (Rachel Nichols) and soon-to-be 16 year-old daughter Caitlin (Aubrey Peeples). Then, one night, when Paul and Vanessa are out at a restaurant, Caitlin, who was at home with two teenage friends, is abducted and, later, found dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Ballistics indicates that the weapon used was a Tokarev pistol. So grief-stricken Paul and his burly construction crew (Max Ryan, Michael McGrady), armed with shotguns, go after a gang of Russian thugs with whom they’ve tangled in the past, despite warnings from Paul’s Irish mobster mentor, Francis O’Connell (Peter Stormare), and Detective Peter St. John (Danny Glover). But there’s no way to stop vengeful, psychopathic Paul, who’s determined to get to the mob boss, Chekhov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff).

Formerly titled “Tokarev,” the formulaic screenplay was written by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller and is perfunctorily directed by Paul Cabezas and photographed by Andrzej Sekula (“Pulp Fiction,” “American Psycho”) with an eye towards making the most of gratuitous, gruesome violence. Senselessly punctuated by dull car chases and perfunctory knife fights, it also contains a clumsy third-act twist that no one sees coming. One bit of curious trivia: during flashbacks to Paul at a younger age, he’s played by Nicolas’s son Weston Cage.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rage” is a tedious 2. It’s a total waste of time.

“Deliver Us From Evil”

Susan Granger’s review of “Deliver Us from Evil” (Sony Pictures Entertainment/Screen Gems)

 

In the 2010 prologue, set in Iraq, three American soldiers stumble upon an entrance to a dimly lit, spooky, subterranean chamber, obviously a religious site, littered with human skulls. Subsequently, Griggs (Scott Johnsen), Jimmy (Chris Coy) and Santino (Sean Harris) are beset by series of horrific, seemingly senseless crimes.

Four years later, that mysterious incident piques the interest of NYPD Sgt. Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), who has been neglecting his pregnant wife Jen (Olivia Munn) and soccer-loving daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson) in his dogged pursuit of wrongdoing in the South Bronx. His laid-back partner Butler (Joel McHale) is the kind of reckless “adrenaline junkie” who likes stirring up trouble by wearing a Boston Red Sox cap in Yankee territory. Then there’s the chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking Jesuit priest, Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who gradually convinces Sarchie, a lapsed Catholic, that there may be supernatural forces involved in three separate crimes, all tangentially connected to Griggs, Jimmy and, specifically, Santino. To make things worse, they discover that a specific incantation – in Latin and Persian – invites a demon to enter the human world, and that Sarchie’s family is in imminent danger.  Inevitably, this leads to a surprisingly long, formulaic exorcism scene at the police station.

Once again, Eric Bana (“Lone Survivor) proves a strong protagonist, fighting to the death atop an old player piano. But it’s curious that the source material, “Beware the Night” by the real Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool, shows how, as an occult/paranormal investigator, Sarchie came to believe that some of these criminals were, indeed, possessed, while screenwriter/director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Sinister”) and his co-writer Paul Harris Boardman depict Sarchie as a skeptic.  Unfortunately, any connection between post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and demonic possession is glossed over. So, in addition to cliché-riddled dialogue, there are numerous grisly, gory scenes, one that serves as warning never, ever to visit the Bronx Zoo at night.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Deliver Us From Evil” is a foul 4, filled with depravity.

“Land Ho!”

Susan Granger’s review of “Land Ho!” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

C.S. Lewis once wrote: “You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.” So when a pair of curious, 60-something ex-brothers-in-law set off on a road trip, they’re determined to reclaim their youthful exuberance and enthusiasm.

Married to two sisters, Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) were once close friends. But when Mitch and his wife divorced, they drifted apart. Then Colin’s wife died. So Mitch, a retired doctor, is determined to enhance what’s left of his life with another adventure – and he convinces reluctant Colin to accompany him on a wild, wintry exploration of Iceland. While garrulous Mitch gladly forks over the cost of first-class tickets, a posh hotel and extravagant restaurant dinners, introspective Colin prove to be a troubling travelling companion – until they take off in a huge Hummer and meet Nadine (Alice Olivia Clarke), who takes a fancy to Colin while she’s photographing – and swimming in – the hot springs at Landmannalaugar.

In this case, the backstory is almost as interesting as the narrative.  Jovial Dr. Earl Lynn Nelson, who really was an ocular plastic surgeon in eastern Kentucky, became intrigued when his second cousin, independent filmmaker Martha Stephens (“Pilgrim Song”), came up with the buddy-comedy concept and teamed up with her University of North Carolina film school classmate Aaron Katz (“Cold Weather”). Working as co-writers/directors, they recruited Australian-born actor Paul Eenhoorn, along with cinematographer Andrew Reed, and took off for scenic Reykjavik and its primordial environs. While the sensitive plot points were scripted, many of the scenes are improvised – like the candid dialogue when they’re viewing explicitly sexual paintings in an art gallery as the artist stands nearby or impatiently waiting for a landmark geyser to blow. Their collaborative effort became a hit at the Sundance, Tribeca and Los Angeles Film Festivals and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Land Ho!” is a resonant 6, serving as both a charming comical confection and an enticing Icelandic travelogue.