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“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 He’s been replaced by a fresh-faced, raw recruit, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a former office clerk/typist who just finished basic training and has no fighting experience.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.

“Drive Hard”

Susan Granger’s review of “Drive Hard” (Odyssey Media/Image Entertainment)

 

Whatever happened to John Cusack’s career? Why is this once A-list actor now appearing in an idiotic heist clunker like this? That’s just a rhetorical question. Obviously, he needs the money.

Concocted by three credited screenwriters (Chad Law, Evan Law, Brigitte Jean Allen) along with Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith, this potboiler revolves around Peter Roberts(Thomas Jane), a former race car driver who is now working as a driving instructor, and Simon Keller (Cusack), a fellow American who, ostensibly, hires him to learn how to navigate the ‘opposite’ side of the road in Queensland. But that’s not the real reason. What Simon really needs is a getaway driver to help him escape when he pulls an audacious bank heist that nets $9 million in bearer bonds. And that’s what kidnapped Peter is forced to do – at gunpoint.

As they’re doggedly pursued up the Gold Coast by state and federal law enforcement officers, along with the bank’s unscrupulous henchmen, they banter back and forth. Most of it sounds hastily improvised, rather than thoughtfully scripted.  Clad in black, including a hat and dark glasses, Simon gives frantic, henpecked Peter marital advice on how to handle his nagging attorney wife (Yesse Spence) who wants him to take a more lucrative office job to help support their adolescent daughter (Francesca Bianchi). There are also unfortunate encounters with a foulmouthed, pistol-packing old lady (Carol Burns), a bevy of bikers at a bar, and an ill-fated, trigger-happy convenience-store clerk.

If the cliché-filled dialogue is insipid and dull, the chaotic action footage is even more tedious. Years ago, Brian Trenchard-Smith churned out low-budget B-movies like “Dead End Drive-In,” “Leprechaun,”  “Turkey Shoot” and something called “BMX Bandits,” which featured a very young Nicole Kidman. Except for casting the two well-known Hollywood actors, this wannabe crime-caper comedy is hardly a step up.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Drive Hard” stalls out with a disappointing 2, running out of gas far too quickly.

“The Zero Theorem”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Zero Theorem” (Amplify)

 

According to filmmaker Terry Gilliam, this sci-fi fantasy completes the dystopian trilogy that began with “Brazil” (1985), followed by “Twelve Monkeys” (1995). This installment is set in London in an unspecified future when corporate computers run everyone’s lives.

Reclusive Qohen (Christoph Waltz) crunches “entities” for Mancom, a technology company. A diligent yet depressed neurotic who refers to himself as “we,” he dislikes toiling in an office. Instead, he’d rather stay in the cluttered, burnt-out, baroque church he calls home, much to the chagrin of his supervisor (David Thewlis). Management (Matt Damon) cryptically agrees to allow Qohen (pronounced “koen”) to work wherever he wants – under one condition:  that he will solve an arcane mathematical formula called the Zero Theorem. It postulates that everything adds up to nothing – but zero must equal 100%.

Perpetually waiting for a phone call from a higher power that will explain the meaning of life, Qohen’s endeavors are interrupted by a digital psychiatrist (Tilda Swinton), a seductive coquette (Melanie Thierry), Management’s nerdy son (Lucas Hedges), and two henchmen known as the Clones (Emil Hostina, Pavlic Nemes).  While Swedish actress Tilda Swinton recycles the same buckteeth she wore in “Snowpiercer” (2013), Melanie Thierry seems to be channeling Madonna’s various phases and outfits. Matt Damon is given the most innovative costumes; wherever he appears, his suits match the curtains, wallpaper and furniture, seamlessly blending him into the environment.

Septuagenarian Terry Gilliam is a former Monty Python animator who is obviously obsessed with dazzling imagery. Collaborating with screenwriter Pat Rushin, this plot borrows elements from “Waiting for Godot,” “Blade Runner,” the “book of Ecclesiastes” and the existential literary meanderings of Franz Kafka.  Gilliam purportedly created this visual extravaganza on an $8.5 million budget by filming in Bucharest, which, he said, was the cheapest place he could work that had a good crew – and where costume designer Carlo Poggioli could buy extraordinary, yet cut-rate, Chinese-made fabrics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Zero Theorem” is a facetious, yet fanciful 4.  Beneath its superficial complexity, it’s just Steampunk eye-candy.

“The Diappearance of Eleanor Rigby”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Writer/director Ned Benson captures various aspects of a marital relationship in this composite of two earlier versions of the film, relating the same New York-set tale from the spouses’ different perspectives.

Far from Paul McCartney’s British spinster, this Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) is an irrepressibly beautiful woman who adores her husband, Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy).  But when tragedy strikes in the form of the death of their baby son, their marriage collapses.  While their loss is a devastating blow to both of them, each responds differently. In their sorrow, they have lost the power to communicate to one another and cannot seem to reconnect. While he holds his grief in, taking after his distant father (Ciaran Hinds), and struggles to maintain the Village restaurant/bar he owns, she tries to commit suicide, jumping off a bridge. After she’s rescued, she runs home to her parents (Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt) in Westport, submerging herself in sadness.

If you can forgive the misguided titular Beatles reference, it’s an innovative, intriguing experiment in parallel film-making. But, after seeing “Her” (which detailed Eleanor’s perspective) and “Him” (which relates Conor’s point-of-view) back-to-back and contrasting them, the amalgam “Them” gets more than a bit tedious, given first-time filmmaker Ned Benson’s plodding pace. Jessica Chastain is elegantly brittle yet touching, while James McAvoy epitomizes sulky, melancholy desperation. In addition, there are memorable supporting performances from Viola Davis as Eleanor’s college professor, Jess Weixer as her sympathetic sister, and Bill Hader as Conor’s cook and best-friend.

The backstory is that after Harvey Weinstein bought the rights to “Her” and “Him” at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, he decided to consolidate Benson’s ambitious concept into “Them.” Problem is: it doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. “Them” doesn’t repeat scenes to show the conflicting viewpoints and how memories differ as they struggle to overcome their anguish – and that makes it less emotionally compelling.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is a sensitive, sorrowful 7, a love-gone-awry trilogy.

 

“Annabelle”

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

 

Do you remember the collection of horrific, supernatural artifacts belonging to Fairfield County’s husband-and-wife ghost-hunting team, Lorraine and Ed Warren, which were on display in “The Conjuring” (2013)? Among them was a demonic doll named Annabelle, which was kept in a locked cupboard. She’s front-and-center this time ‘round. As the prologue explains, dolls have been cherished objects since the beginning of time.  And wide-eyed, grinning Annabelle is no exception.

Set in Southern California in 1969 and slyly referencing Mia Farrow from Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” the pregnant protagonist is named Mia (Annabelle Wallis), who gives birth to a baby girl named Leah. Mia’s married to medical student John (Ward Horton), who presents her with Annabelle since she’s expressed her love for large, garish, vintage dolls. When they’re viciously attacked and their elderly neighbors are brutally killed by members of a Satanic cult (an obvious allusion to Charles Manson’s followers), the invaders leave behind an errant demon. Even when the young family moves from Santa Monica to an apartment in Pasadena, spooky, telekinetic Annabelle goes with them. Eventually, Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), who runs an occult book store, clues helpless Mia in – but do they ditch the doll? John tries – but she miraculously shows up in one of the moving boxes and assumes a place by Leah’s bed. Even calling in their parish priest (Tony Amendola) doesn’t seem to help.

Screenwriter Gary Duberman and “Conjuring” cinematographer John R. Leonetti never manage to make the killer doll concept as terrifying as it should be. One interesting touch is how they lifted composer Joseph Bishara’s theme from “The Conjuring,” making it the music on Leah’s mobile.  But, in general, crude, gimmicky horror movie clichés prevail: all-too-familiar ominous occurrences like slamming doors, creaky rocking chairs, curtains fluttering in a non-existent breeze, malfunctioning electrical appliances, sporadic TV reception and an endangered baby carriage.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Annabelle” is a tedious 2, a strictly superficial fright-flick that’s teasingly rated R for “intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror.”

“Gone Girl”

Susan Granger’s review of “Gone Girl” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Utilizing Gillian Flynn’s savvy, streamlined screen adaptation of her 2012 best-seller, director David Fincher has created an intense Hitchockian thriller – with an innocent man accused, a coolly elegant platinum blonde, psychologically complex characters who cannot be trusted and constant suspense as the mystery unfolds. Since I had not read the novel, the bizarre plot twists and turns took me by surprise. Yet what’s most impressive is the cinematic artistry of the entire cast and production team.

Ben Affleck is totally convincing as bewildered Nick Dunne, whose beautiful wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), inexplicably disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary. She’s a Harvard-educated, literary celebrity known as “Amazing Amy,” who moved with him to Missouri after they both lost their writing jobs in Manhattan. Seeking solace with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), with whom he owns a local bar, Nick grimly struggles to figure out what might have happened, along with Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens). All he knows is that he came home to find a smashed coffee-table and his wife missing. As the dogged investigation proceeds, details about perfectionist Amy’s past and the fragile state of her marriage to Nick are revealed – with everything pointing to his guilt -particularly after Amy’s parents arrive from New York.

David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “The Fight Club”) is a stickler for detailed authenticity, keeping the alleged crime scene pristine as participants painstakingly track down multiple whodunit clues within the perspective-shuffling structure.  As partners in this rumination on contemporary marriage, Affleck is amiably opaque, while Rosamund Pike is inscrutably enigmatic. So who’s the real sociopath? Tyler Perry scores as the slick defense attorney who takes Nick’s case, coaching him on how to manipulate the media. And Neil Patrick Harris is solid as Amy’s snide, suspiciously creepy ex-boyfriend.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gone Girl” is a dark, tension-filled 10. Those who have read the book tell me Gillian Flynn tweaked the ending’s timeline which may or may not satisfy purists. But I can already hear Oscar buzz.