“The Night Before”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Night Before” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Entertainment)


In this stoner comedy, narrated by Tracy Morgan, Seth Rogen gives a new meaning to White Christmas.

Ever since his parents were killed by a drunk driver in 2001, when he was in his late teens, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has always spent Christmas Eve drinking, eating Chinese food and carousing with his old pals Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). But now they’re all in their 30s.

Isaac’s wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) is expecting their first baby, and Chris has become a famous pro football star/product pitchman.  Ethan – an out-of-work musician who does cater-waiter gigs, often in costume – has just broken up with his girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), who left him because he refused to meet her family, even after they’ve dated for two years.

So he decides to make the guys’ final holiday hangout memorable by scoring three tickets to a secret party they’ve always yearned to find – the Nutcracka Ball – known as the wildest bash of the year.

Their boisterous adventure starts with karaoke and picks up with Michael Shannon as Mr. Green, a philosophical pot dealer. Along the way, they interact with Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Ilana Glazer, even James Franco and Miley Cyrus, gratuitously spoofing  themselves. And the most memorable sequence involves the giant piano Tom Hanks played in “Big.”

Writer/director Jonathan Levine and his three co-writers (Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir, Kyle Hunter) rely on the easy camaraderie between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, perhaps because they previously co-starred in Levine’s far superior “50/50,” about a millennial-battling-cancer.

Not surprisingly, Rogen makes Isaac’s experience by far the most interesting. Gifted with a stash of drugs by his understanding wife and wearing a blue Hanukkah sweater, he trips out with a friendly Nativity display and freaks-out with paranoia at Midnight Mass in a Catholic Church.

But mostly it’s a sloppy, repetitious, disjointed trail to self-discovery.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Night Before” is a debauchery-drenched 5, an R-rated arrested adolescent coming-to-adulthood holiday caper.


“Secret in Their Eyes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Secret in Their Eyes” (STX Entertainment)


It’s not surprising that Julia Roberts rose to the bait of this remake of Juan Jose Campanella’s 2009 Buenos Aires-based crime thriller – “El Secreto de Sus Ojos” – that won an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film.

Once America’s smiling sweetheart, Roberts plays an entirely different role, as complex Jess Cobb, a grungy, grief-stricken investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.

“You look a million years old,” says her observant DA boss, impeccably elegant Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman).

Back in 2002, Jess’s teenage daughter, Caroline, was brutally raped and murdered, her body found in a dumpster near the local mosque, but the suspected killer, Marzin (Joe Cole), was never brought to justice.

Determined to track him down, Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an empathetic, former F.B.I. terrorism expert, has doggedly pursued each and every lead for 13 years.  He’s an obsessive vigilante, accompanied by his colleague Bumpy (Dean Norris).

As one character astutely comments, “We’re not just crossing the line, we’re burying it.”

Adapted and directed by Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips,” “Shattered Glass”) with cinematography by Julia’s now-estranged-husband Danny Moder, this recycled police procedural suffers from problematic characters and too many contrived coincidences, confusingly veering back-and-forth between 2002 and 2015.

One of the biggest disappointments is how the original crowded soccer-stadium chase sequence has been dumbed-down to a boring, poorly staged pursuit in Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium.

Obviously encouraged by her Academy Award nomination for “August: Osage County,” Julia Roberts seems determined to defy expectations by pursuing meaty, off-beat characterizations – without glamorous makeup.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Secret in Their Eyes” is a tepid, forgettable 4, a pulpy, inferior imitation of its Argentinean predecessor.



“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” (Lionsgate)


This highly anticipated conclusion begins where Part 1 left off.  After brainwashed Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) almost choked her to death, bruised and battered Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering.

While Katniss vows to kill despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland), resistance leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) says she more valuable as the iconic Mockingjay, inspiring others to band together, ending district rivalries in Panem. But this reduces Katniss to a primarily passive figurehead.

As a propaganda tool, she’s assigned to the Star Squad, infiltrating the Capitol, which has been booby-trapped against the rebels. That leads to lots of violent, often fatal CGI skirmishes, particularly when they take a claustrophobic, underground route, battling slithering sewer slimes.

Resilient stylist Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) flutters, while videographer Natalie Dormer (TV’s “Game of Thrones”) keeps the cameras rolling and there’s an all-too-brief glimpse of statuesque Gwendoline Christie (TV’s “Game of Thrones”).

According to many, the third book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is the weakest and never should have been split into two parts. But greed prevailed, as in other young-adult adaptations like “Twilight” and “Divergent.”

With longbow in hand and an arrow-filled quiver on her back, Jennifer Lawrence is stunning – and the odds are still in her favor.

But even she seems to sense that this slog has become stale, even with stalwart support from veterans Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Stanley Tucci and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose last Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee’s message is read aloud by Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch.

As Katniss’s suitors, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are dismally dull lumps. Were their roles deliberately diluted by screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, along with director Francis Lawrence? And then there’s the sudden, somewhat inexplicable demise of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin). Too bad Suzanne Collins never paired him romantically with Katniss.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” is a somber, insipid, slavishly faithful 6, as the Girl on Fire becomes a glowing ember.


“The Lady in the Van”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lady in the Van” (Sony Pictures Classics)


Dame Maggie Smith – a.k.a. Dowager Countess of Grantham on TV’s “Downton Abbey” – stars in Alan Bennett’s adaptation of his West End hit play, based on his best-selling memoir, delivering a tour-de-force, Oscar-caliber performance.

After Bennett reluctantly befriended Miss Mary Shepherd (Smith) in 1974, the eccentric British bag lady “temporarily” parked her dilapidated van in his driveway in suburban Camden and proceeded to live there for the next 15 years. A former nun, she explained that the Virgin Mary had advised it.

The celebrated London playwright/screenwriter/actor/author is played by Alex Jennings in a dual role: the Alan Bennett who writes and the Alan Bennett who observes and probes for truth. He engages in a long-running debate with himself about what to do about increasingly decrepit and demanding Miss Shepherd, who smells of urine, feces, raw onions and talcum powder.

“One seldom was able to do her a good turn,” he observes, “without some thoughts of strangulation.”

At the same time, Bennett is dealing with his mother, who suffers from dementia. And it’s only after Miss Shepherd’s eventual demise that he discovers her ‘secret.’ Years earlier, a young motorcyclist had crashed into her van; panicked, she left the scene of the fatal accident before the police arrived, making her technically guilty of a felony and open to blackmail.

A fervent Catholic, guilt-riddled Miss Shepherd often confesses this sin to a priest who repeatedly absolves her. Eventually, he’s pressed to explain: “Absolution is not like the bus pass. It doesn’t run out.”

Director Nicholas Hytner (“The History Boys”) studs this touching, “mostly true” character study with cameos by veteran British thespians Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent, Dermot Crowley, Frances de la Tour and “The Late Late Show” host James Corden.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lady in the Van” is a whimsical, poignant 7, serving as a showcase for Maggie Smith as the filthy, self-centered vagrant to whom “feelings of gratitude, humility and forgiveness were either foreign to her nature or had become so over the years.”


“By the Sea”

Susan Granger’s review of “By the Sea” (Universal Pictures)


When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt got married, they spent their honeymoon leisurely making this humorless vanity project, fully aware that Brangelina publicity would propel its eventual release. What they obviously were unaware of was how awful it would turn out.

And one wonders why?

When they first teamed up for “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (2005), enough sparks ignited to propel Pitt’s divorce from Jennifer Aniston, but now – in this romantic drama – their on-screen chemistry has completely fizzled. Their contrived conversation seems stilted – without any emotional connection.

Actually, that’s not surprising. When Madonna co-starred with then-husband Sean Penn in “Shanghai Surprise” (1986), it flopped, and she fared no better directed by then-husband Guy Ritchie in “Swept Away” (2002).

Set in the 1970s, this story begins as blond-mustached Roland Bertrand (Pitt) and his vain wife Vanessa (Jolie) are driving through the French countryside in a vintage Citroen convertible. When they arrive at a picturesque seaside resort, they unload a stack of Louis Vuitton luggage, filled with her diaphanous couture clothes, indicating a lengthy stay.

Roland is planning to work on his second novel as they try to resolve some traumatic marital issues. He boozes and she gulps pills, so there’s not much progress on either count until they become voyeurs, spying through a peephole on young honeymooners – Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) – in a neighboring suite, vicariously sharing their sexual encounters.

Trying for a triple play, as writer, director and star, Angelina Jolie flounders, despite a $10 million budget and Christian Berger’s pastel Mediterranean cinematography – with Malta standing in for France’s Cote d’Azur.

Allegedly, Jolie, who adroitly directed the Louis Zamperini biopic “Unbroken” (2014), has been tinkering with this screenplay since her mother died of cancer eight years ago; significantly, her mother’s name was also Bertrand.

Indicative of the couple’s narcissistic self-awareness, Roland notes, “We’ve had a life you couldn’t imagine….”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “By the Sea” is a tepid, pretentious 3, sinking in slow-paced self-indulgence.




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


In his first mainstream movie, writer/director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) has not only revived “Rocky” nostalgia but also introduced an entirely new character: Adonis (“Donnie”) Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), son of legendary boxing champion Apollo Creed.

Born out of wedlock to a mother who died, then shuffled through foster care and juvenile detention, adolescent Adonis is adopted by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who knows he’s her late husband’s illegitimate son.

Raised and educated in L.A.’s posh Baldwin Hills, Donnie lands a cushy corporate job but spends weekends prize-fighting in Tijuana – until he goes to Philadelphia to track down his father’s fabled nemesis/friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

Still tending Adrian’s restaurant (named after his late wife), Rocky is reluctant at first but soon relents, patiently teaching and training Donnie. Problem is: Donnie’s determined to use his own name, which turns off ambitious promoters.

“Every move that I make, every punch that I throw, everybody’s gonna compare me to him,” he admits. “I’m afraid of taking on the name and losing.”

Meanwhile, Donnie hooks up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a lovely singer/songwriter who is gradually going deaf. Aging, avuncular Rocky develops a warm relationship with her as well, as the plot propels toward a major match with Britain’s cocky Ricky Conlan (ABA Heavyweight Champion Anthony Bellew).

What’s extraordinary are the subtle choices that storyteller Ryan Coogler skillfully makes, along with co-writer Aaron Covington, delving into the lengths a man would go to in order to connect with the father he never knew. There’s skepticism but not cynicism, as the multi-layered characters deal with life’s challenges in his/her own way.

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“The Wrestler”) has become a pugilistic expert, making each match exciting.  And Ludwig Goransson’s integrated hip-hop/orchestral score is an important element – with Coogler cleverly saving Bill Conti’s iconic “Rocky” theme for a crucial, climactic moment.

Yet it’s Sylvester Stallone who delivers the most stunning surprise. Slipping into Burgess Meredith mode, he’s both forceful and fragile. As of now, he’s my top pick for 2015’s Best Supporting Actor.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Creed” is a crowd-pleasing 9. Albeit familiar, this redemptive spinoff could even be an Oscar contender. Wouldn’t that be a knockout punch?


“The Peanuts Movie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Peanuts Movie” (20th Century-Fox/Blue Sky)


Good grief! Charles M. Schultz’s beloved comic strip characters are now CG-animated and in 3D for the first time.

Working from a simplistic script co-written by Schultz’s son Craig and grandson Brian, along with Cornelius Uliano, director Steve Martino, art director Nash Dunnigan and Blue Sky Studios (“Ice Age,” “Horton Hears a Who!”) have brought Charlie Brown and his gang back to the big screen for the first time since 1980’s “Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!).”

Their gently spirited concept faithfully replicates many of the individual characters’ quirks and idiosyncrasies. It revolves around how good-hearted Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) is immediately smitten when the Little Red-Haired Girl moves into the neighborhood, while a secondary plot involves Charlie’s fun-loving beagle Snoopy and his penchant for creative writing.

There’s Lucy, Schroeder, Sally, Pigpen, Woodstock, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Linus, clutching his security blanket, along with the kite-eating tree, the missing football, the Great Pumpkin, the high-flying Red Baron and Fifi, a femme fatale poodle (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth).

Parents and grandparents may have to explain outdated items like a rotary telephone, fountain pen and manual typewriter to youngsters – but that’s not a bad thing. Many of us still use those archaic staples.

Significantly, Charles’ widow Jean Schultz has indicated that, while her husband would be proud of this modern version, she is in “no rush” to encourage a sequel – and her consent is vital to filmmakers at 20th Century-Fox who obtained the right to produce only one movie.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Peanut Movie” is an amiable, satisfying 7, sweetly nostalgic family fare.


“Love the Coopers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Love the Coopers” (CBS Films)


It’s really difficult even to like the Coopers, despite the holiday theme and star-studded cast.

Charlotte Cooper (Diane Keaton) presides over a magnificent kitchen, its gleaming granite countertops jam-packed with appetizing edibles. Once a year, four generations gather under one roof on Christmas Eve – and she wants everything to be perfect.

Problem is: perpetually flustered Charlotte has a dysfunctional family and chaos reigns. With Steve Martin providing an omniscient narration, their individual and collective angst is revealed.

Knowing that her mother fervently wants her to find Mr. Right, struggling playwright daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), who is having an affair with a married man, recruits Joe (Jake Lacy), a conservative Christian, soon-to-be deployed soldier whom she meets in an airport bar, to pose as her boy-friend.

Meanwhile, dejected son Hank (Ed Helms), a mall photographer who snorts when he laughs and is divorcing his wife Angie (Alex Borstein), arrives with their kids, including a sullen teenager and a five year-old who crudely repeats: “You’re such a dick!”

Charlotte’s envious, spinster sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) shoplifts, so she’s whisked off in the back of a police cruiser driven by a closeted cop (Anthony Mackie).

Lonely Grandpa Bucky (Alan Arkin) still has an eye for young ladies, particularly an insecure waitress (Amanda Seyfried) at the diner he frequents. And there’s flatulent Aunt Fishy (June Squib).

To top it off: Charlotte is planning to end her 40-year marriage to Sam (John Goodman) after the festivities conclude, perhaps because Sam is determined to finally take a long-postponed trip to Africa – with or without her.

Given this cast of characters, one might hope for humor. But none is forthcoming from screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Stepmom”), whose flaccid, contrived dramedy is peppered with flashbacks and telegraphed deductions, as director Jessie Nelson (“I Am Sam”) vainly evokes memories of the classic comedy “Born Yesterday” (1950), directed by George Cukor and produced by my father, S. Sylvan Simon.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Love the Coopers” is a tedious 3. Loath is more suitable.



Susan Granger’s review of “Spectre” (Columbia Pictures/MGM)


Although this 24th installment of the James Bond saga is action-packed, the 53 year-old franchise, based on British Secret Agent 007, is creaking and beginning to show its age.

Beginning in Mexico City during the massive celebration of the Day of the Dead, it shows Bond (Daniel Craig) scampering over rooftops, deftly assassinating an Italian bad guy, even as British Intelligence is still recovering from the massive attack that killed off M (Judy Dench) in “Skyfall.”

Apparently, before her demise, M sent a warning message to Bond which sends him on a global man-hunt for evil Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the mastermind of a crime syndicate called SPECTRE, who evokes recollections of James’ orphaned childhood and an infamous Bond villain from the past.

Complicating matters, Bond is summarily grounded by the cocky, new National Security Director Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who is obsessed with creepy cyber-security. He’s determined to shut down the 00-section and disband Bond’s trusty team of Ralph Fiennes as Mallory (M’s replacement), Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw as gadget-master Q.

While Bond still beds every sexy woman who crosses his path, the four screenwriters (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth) and director Sam Mendes have the good grace to include 50 year-old Monica Belluci (as an icy Italian widow who registers as 007’s oldest conquest) before he settles on sullen, 30 year-old Lea Seydoux.

Insofar as chase sequences, some are impressive: the helicopter spinning over the crowded Zocalo in Mexico City, a spin through Morocco, a plane careening down an Austrian mountainside, and a speeding automobile encounter in Rome.

The budget was reportedly over $250 million, and at 148 minutes, it’s the longest in the Bond series.

Problem is: an enervating fatigue has set in, taking the humor and fun with it. Even the title sequence is lame, particularly the signature song, Sam Smith’s whiny ballad “The Writing’s On the Wall.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Spectre” is a sinister, sadistic 6, clumsy escapist entertainment that’s neither shaken nor stirring.


“The 33″

Susan Granger’s review of “The 33” (Warner Bros./Alcon Entertainment)


On August 10, 2010, 33 Chilean miners were buried alive by the catastrophic explosion and collapse of a 121 year-old gold and copper mine.  For the next 69 days, an international team endeavored to rescue them, as millions of people around the world watched. This is their story.

Opening with the ominous statistic that 12,000 miners die annually in work accidents, it begins at a retirement party in Copiapo, honoring an old-timer who has only a few days left before hanging up his hardhat forever. That’s where the primary characters are introduced.

There’s shift supervisor Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), young father-to-be Alex Vega (Mario Casas), philandering Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nunez), Elvis impersonator Edison Pena (Jacob Vargas), Bolivian newcomer Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta), and alcoholic Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba). The most recognizable is Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas), who becomes their leader.

The terror begins at the San Jose Mine under the rugged Atacama Desert, as fateful cracks in the mountain wall signal impending disaster. Trapped under 700 tons of rock, “Super” Mario allocates food and water distribution in the small, sweltering cavern called “the Refuge.”

Above ground, families gather in a makeshift camp, including Maria (Juliette Binoche) as Dario Segovia’s strident, estranged sister. (Binoche replaced Jennifer Lopez, who would have been far more convincing as the itinerant empanada-vendor.)

Chile’s idealistic, new Mining Minister Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) supervises the rescue efforts of a team led by civil engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne). In an uncredited cameo, James Brolin is an American drilling engineer.

Based on a superficial scenario by Jose Rivera and Hector Tobar’s authorized account “Deep Down Dark,” it’s formulaically scripted by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas, and conventionally directed by Mexican-born Patricia Riggen (“Under the Same Moon,” “Girl in Progress”), except for one intriguing scene of magical realism.

Photographed by Checco Varese in two working mines in Colombia, its authenticity is obvious, particularly as men are lifted, one-by-one, in a capsule lowered 2,300 below the surface.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The 33” is a solid, survivalist 6, an inspirational tribute to their fortitude, resilience and spirit.