Susan Granger’s review of “The Best Man Holiday” (Universal Pictures)
Back in 1999, Malcolm D. Lee concocted a romantic dramedy about African-American college friends working out life’s most complicated problems. Now – 14 years later – they’ve re assembled to celebrate the Yuletide season together.
While the first film focused on Harper (Taye Diggs), the sequel shifts to Mia (Monica Calhoun), who married Lance (Morris Chestnut), a New York Giants superstar running back, and they now have four children. According to Lance, what’s important in life is, “God, family, football – in that order.” But Mia desperately misses her old friends so, despite Lance’s misgivings, she graciously
invites everyone to their magnificently decorated, suburban mansion for Christmas weekend.
Not surprisingly, each has his/her own quandary. NYU professor/struggling writer Harper, who hasn’t had a best-seller since “Unfinished Business,” his semi-autobiographical novel about his friends’ early days, has an ulterior motive for making the trip, but he doesn’t realize that his long-suffering, very-pregnant wife, Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), worries about him reconnecting with Jordan (Nia Long), his former flame, now an executive at MSNBC who’s brought along her new ‘vanilla’ boyfriend Brian (Eddie Cibran). Private school administrator/social activist Julian (Harold Perrineau) is worried about a scandalous YouTube video of his wife Candace (Regina Hall), a former stripper, and the catty revelations of his slutty ex, Shelby (Melissa DeSousa), who is now a reality-TV star on “The Real Housewives of Westchester.” And troublemaking bachelor Quentin (Terrence Howard) is up to his rascally tricks, wandering around the house without his pants.
Mixing raunchy comedy with predictable, if sometimes forced and formulaic Christian melodrama and long-winded dialogue, writer/director Malcolm D. Lee (Spike’s cousin) manages to keep the pace steady, even if every simplistic plot turn is telegraphed in advance. To his credit, Lee takes full advantage of his talented cast, setting up for yet another sequel.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Best Man Holiday” is a soapy, seasonal 6. Perhaps
comedian Seth MacFarlane put it best when he dubbed this “Love Blacktually.”
Susan Granger’s review of “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart” (Quick Center/Fairfield Univ.)
As Thanksgiving approaches, my gratitude goes to Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts for the opportunity not only to appreciate the arts but also to see unique theatrical performances like this close to home.
Conceived, written and consummately performed by John Lithgow, “Stories by Heart” is an evening of storytelling, consisting of personal reminiscences, a poem and two classic short stories from a well-worn anthology. As Lithgow recalls, they were read to his father Arthur and his siblings by his grandmother in their Massachusetts home. Arthur Lithgow was a regional stage actor/director/producer who passed on the storytelling tradition to his children. So when Arthur was in his 80s, recovering from serious surgery, John reversed roles, reading to his ailing parents before they went to bed each night.
Incredibly charming and versatile as an actor, John Lithgow assumes multiple roles, including a parrot, during P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a yarn about a timid, young Londoner who accompanies his eccentric uncle on whimsical journey into the English countryside. There’s an
intermission – then Lithgow begins Act II with a bizarrely rhyming folk ballad, “Eggs and Marrow Bones,” about adultery and murder, which leads into a full-length recitation of Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” in which he embodies a gossiping, small-town Midwestern barber, giving a shave and trim to an unseen customer. It’s a dark monologue that reflects turn-of-the-20th century Americana, a twisting tale that involves a beautiful woman, a doctor and a mentally challenged young man.
Best known as an Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor, John Lithgow’s heart is in literature, specifically, storytelling. His plummy, resonant voice lends itself to a variety of audacious impersonations and transformative characterizations, and his uncanny ability for pantomime rivals the best in the business. Having acknowledged his considerable craftsmanship, I must also admit that Lithgow’s solo memoir stretches a bit too long. He says he added a second act when he sensed his audience wanted more, but I think – in its entirety – the evening could use some judicious pruning.
John Lithgow’s “Stories by Heart” played at the Quick Center for the Arts on Fri., Nov. 15, 2013, for one-night only – but it’s on tour around the country in various theatrical venues. Catch it if you can!
Susan Granger’s review of “Last Love” (RLJ Entertainment)
The only reason to see this bleak melodrama is to watch 80 year-old masterful craftsman Michael Caine as a cantankerous old coot.
Set in Paris, the story revolves around lonely, expat Matthew Morgan (Caine), a retired philosophy professor from Princeton who is still mourning the death of his beloved wife Joan (Jane Alexander) three years earlier. Unable to speak much French, Morgan is assisted by free-spirited Pauline (Clemence Poesy), who is young enough to be his granddaughter and teaches the cha-cha at a local dance school. Their unexpectedly tender (non-romantic) friendship infuriates Morgan’s disapproving, disagreeable adult children – cynical Miles (Justin Kirk) and callous shopaholic Karen (Gillian Anderson) – who arrive from the United States after Morgan attempts suicide, taking an overdose of sleeping pills in his spacious Left Bank apartment.
Adapted from the novel, “La Douceur Assassine” by Francoise Dornier, it’s written and directed by German-born Sandra Nettlebeck (“Mostly Martha”), who cannot overcome her own terminally weak, cliché-riddled and confusing script which feebly attempts to deal with the dilemmas of aging, parenting and loss. Although Morgan reminds twentysomething Pauline of her deceased father, why she’s so attracted to this dyspeptic senior citizen is never explained. Nor is the sudden shift in her affections from Morgan to his embittered son. In addition, the pacing is far too slow, and the conclusion the lacks emotional resonance of Michael Haneke’s “Amour” or Peter O’Toole’s somewhat similar “Venus.”
In its favor, however, there’s Michael Bertl’s stunning, picture-postcard cinematography of the City of Light and the local countryside of Saint-Malo in Brittany, echoing the gentle score by Hans Zimmer. And if French actress Clemence Poesy looks familiar, she played Fleur Delacour in the “Harry Potter” films.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Last Love” is a dreary, depressing 4. It’s so downbeat that even the considerable talents of Michael Caine cannot enliven the viewing.
Susan Granger’s review of “Kill Your Darlings” (Sony Pictures Classics)
While he’ll always be grateful to J.K. Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe would rather you forget about his
“Harry Potter” days. To that end, he’s choosing weird projects like this, simply because they pique his interest.
“I have a massive chip on my shoulder,” Radcliffe admits. When you fall into something at age 11 and get paid incredible amounts of money for your entire teenage years for doing a job that anyone would want, there’s a part of you that thinks everybody doubts your ability to act. I feel it less nowadays, but it’s taken a long time to get to this place.”
In 1944, when Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) were college students at Columbia, recklessly experimenting with drugs, poetry and homosexuality in the bohemian jazz clubs of Greenwich Village, they were influenced by a charismatic classmate, Lucien Carr (scene-stealing Dane Dehaan). Androgynous Carr, in turn, became the obsession of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), his creepy former teacher/ex-boyfriend. One night, on a lonely path in Riverside Park, Carr stabbed Kammerer to death, trussed him up and dumped him the Hudson River. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were implicated in the murder through guilt by association; Kerouc and Burroughs later wrote a novel about the case which Carr, who became a respected journalist/editor, legally suppressed until his death in 2005.
Somewhat incoherently written by director John Krokidas and his former Yale roommate, Austin Bunn, this melodrama evolves in fragments, presenting yet another aspect of the Beat Generation, following “Howl,” “On the Road” and “Big Sur.” Authentic as the gullible, gay poet from Paterson, New Jersey, Radcliffe displays more range than he has before. While confident of his precocious genius, his bespectacled Ginsberg is sensitive, sullen and socially insecure, and there’s a touching subplot about his poet father (David Cross) and emotionally-unstable mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kill Your Darlings” is a subversively stylish, seedy 6, evoking nostalgia for a hallucinogenic period almost seven decades ago.
Susan Granger’s review of “The Book Thief” (20th Century Fox)
Narrated by Death and told from a child’s perspective in small, German village during the Third Reich, this coming-of-age tale revolves around Liesel Meminger, an adolescent in whom the omniscient Grim Reaper (voiced by Roger Allam) has taken a particular interest.
In 1939, after the death of her mother and brother, orphaned Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is deposited on the doorstep of her new Teutonic foster parents, benevolent housepainter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his cranky wife Rosa (Emily Watson). Playing on the cobblestones of Himmel Street (translated as “Heaven”), Liesel is quickly befriended by their Aryan blond neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), an aspiring track star. When it’s discovered at school that Liesel is illiterate and she’s ridiculed by the class bully Franz (Levin Liam), Hans tenderly teaches her to read, beginning with “The Gravedigger’s Handbook,” which she grabbed when it fell from a workman’s coat at her brother’s funeral. Later, when she defiantly snatches a burning book from a bonfire at a local Nazi rally, she’s spotted by the Burgermeister’s wife, Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer), who invites her into her late son’s library when Liesel delivers laundry. Meanwhile, the Hubermann household is secretly harboring Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the seriously ill, twentysomething son of Hans’s Jewish comrade who saved his life during WW I.
Adapted from Markus Zusak’s lyrical 2006 best-seller by screenwriter Michael Petroni (“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”) and director Brian Percival “(Downton Abbey”), it’s far too episodic and restrained to evoke more than superficial emotional involvement in the characters, despite the horror of the Holocaust, Allied air raids, Florian Balhaus’ sumptuous photography and John Williams’ evocative score.
Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) and Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”) deliver thoughtful, understated performances. Ben Schnetzer is charming, while Sophie Nelisse, a wholesome French-Canadian, is competent but hardly compelling.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Book Thief” is a schmaltzy 6, a gently engaging, well- crafted, historical melodrama that lacks the magical realism of Zusak’s novel.
Susan Granger’s review of “Thor: The Dark World” (Disney/Marvel)
After a prologue that recalls the ancient battles between the heroic Asgardians and an evil race known as the Dark Elves, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is reluctantly preparing to succeed his impatient father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) on the throne of Asgard. But then, after Thor’s two-year absence from Earth, his heartbroken girlfriend, feisty astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), stumbles upon a vortex that marks the boundary between Realms and she becomes infected by the Aether (a.k.a. a gaseous cosmic substance of infinite destruction), making her the target of the Dark Elves’ ruler, megalomaniacal Melekith (Christopher Eccleston). Since detonating the Aether during the Convergence (a.k.a. an astronomical alignment) could plunge Earth and the additional eight Realms into primordial darkness, Thor’s coronation must be postponed.
Inspired by Norse mythology and a story by Don Payne & Robert Rodat, it’s scripted by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and aptly helmed by TV director Alan Taylor (“Game of Thrones,” “Rome,” “The Sopranos”). This sequel is darker yet obviously derivative, borrowing from “Star Wars” prequels, “TRON,” “Prometheus” and “Man of Steel.” Production designer Charles Woods and visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison’s most impressive sequences include shape-shifting, the assault on Odin’s palace, a striking mass funeral and the climactic battle in London.
After racing cars in “Rush,” Australia’s hunky Chris Hemsworth swaggers confidently in the hammer-wielding thunder god’s cape and armor, but Natalie Portman’s talents seem wasted as his romantic interest. In support, Kat Dennings supplies comic relief as Jane’s spunky, sarcastic colleague Darcy and Stellan Skarsgard as naked Dr. Erik Selvig, along with Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s sneering, trickster brother Loki, Rene Russo as Odin’s Queen Frigga and Idris Elba as Asgard’s ever-vigilant Heimdall. Marvel’s Stan Lee does a cameo, as does another costumed crusader.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Thor: The Dark World” is a stolidly amusing superhero 7, a visual effects showcase. Be sure to stay for two mid-credits/post-credits teasers, heralding 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” and 2015’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
Susan Granger’s review of “Free Birds” (Relativity Media/Reel FX)
This is an animated, autumnal, buddy-caper about time-traveling turkeys that are determined to change history and keep themselves and their kinfolk off the Pilgrims’ menu on their first Thanksgiving in the New World.
When astute Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) tries to warn his free-range flock what’s in store for them, they shun him as ‘anti-corn’ yet, when they discover he’s right, he’s tossed out of the coop. Then he’s rescued by the plucky daughter of the President of the United States, who designates Reggie as this year’s “pardoned turkey.” While devouring delivery pizza and cable TV at Camp David, Reggie is kidnapped by renegade Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson) and convinced that it’s their destiny to utilize S.T.E.V.E, an egg-shaped, government-built time machine (voiced by “Star Trek” vet George Takei), for a Turkey Freedom Front trip back to the Plymouth Colony, November, 1621. Upon landing, the roosters confront gun-toting colonists, but they’re saved from the Harvest Feast by Jenny (voiced by Amy Poehler), the sassy daughter of Wild Turkey Chief Broadbeak (voice by Keith David), leading to a daring raid on the settlers’ weapons and the arrival of Chuck E. Cheese pizza.
Pixar animator-turned-director Jimmy Howard (“Horton Hears a Who!”) devises admirable camerawork in his fast- paced, meticulously choreographed action sequences. But the shallow script by Howard with producer Scott Mosier is stuffed with cranberry-sauced humor and gentle jabs against factory farming – plus nods to “Back to the Future” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
Problem is: it lacks the inherent cleverness and fun of similarly fowl-themed “Chicken Run.” Nevertheless, the vocals are superb and composer Dominic Lewis skillfully utilizes electric guitar and pit bass, along with ethnic instrumentation.
FYI: Farm Sanctuary, the largest farm animal rescue and protection organization in the United States, has designated Reggie and Jake as “spokesturkeys” for their annual Adopt-A-Turkey Project. To learn more, visit adoptaturkey.org or call 1-888-SPONSOR.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Free Birds” is a fancifully festive yet flavorless 5, providing perfunctory amusement for very young viewers.
Susan Granger’s review of “Dallas Buyers Club” (Focus Features)
Not since Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for “Philadelphia” has a major Hollywood star
portrayed a person afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Now, Matthew McConaughey follow his mucho-macho “Magic Mike”/“Mud” characterizations with this gritty, frail man-against-the-system drama, based on true events.
When he’s not working as an electrician, Roy Woodruff (McConaughey) is a bull-riding rodeo cowboy, a Texas redneck bigot who openly mocks homosexuals – until, in 1985, he discovers he’s HIV-positive. Stunned by the diagnosis, he refuses to believe the doctors (Denis O’Hare, Jennifer Garner) that he has only 30 days to live. Proclaiming, “I ain’t no dang queer,” Roy balks at participating in a double-blind AZT trial at Dallas Mercy Hospital, afraid he’ll be given a placebo. So he buys AZT illegally, only to discover it’s making him worse, especially since he also chain-smokes, guzzles booze, snorts cocaine and gulps methamphetamines. Through extensive research, he finds an unorthodox doctor (Griffin Dunne) at a Mexican clinic, where he learns about alternative treatments and starts smuggling them into Dallas. With the help an unlikely friend, Rayon (unrecognizable Jared Leto), a transsexual druggie, street-smart Roy organizes a ‘buyer’s club’ where HIV-positive/AIDS-infected members pay $400 monthly dues for his newly acquired, unauthorized supplies, as opposed to the $10,000 a year that pharmaceutical companies charge for AZT, despite its toxicity. That success leads impels rebellious, resourceful Roy to visit Japan, China and the Netherlands, searching for new AIDS drugs, despite attempts by the FDA, DEA and IRS to shut him down.
Empathetically scripted by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallick and grittily helmed in minimalist style by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (“C.R.A.Z.Y.,” “The Young Victoria”) with Yves Belanger’s handheld camerawork, it’s most memorable for Matthew McConaughey’s convincing, complex, tour-de-force performance and astonishing physical transformation. While publicists say he lost 38 pounds, on his wiry, emaciated frame, it looks more like 50. And, making a remarkable return to acting, singer/musician Jared Leto is a revelation.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dallas Buyers Club” is an admirable 8 – a desperately
sad, yet redemptive character study.
Susan Granger’s review of “Last Vegas” (CBS Films)
Combining the talents of Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, this senior citizen comedy reunites the Flatbush Four, best friends since growing up together in Brooklyn. The occasion is a bachelor party for wealthy, womanizing Malibu playboy Billy (Douglas) who’s set to marry his gorgeous, 30-something girl-friend.
That rouses interest from Sam (Kline), who’s terminally bored at a Florida retirement community and encouraged to reawaken his libido by his supportive spouse (Joanna Gleason); Archie (Freeman) who, recovering from a stroke, is being held under constant surveillance by his overly-protective son (Michael Ealy); and grieving widower Paddy (DeNiro), who has refused to leave his New York apartment. Problem is: cranky curmudgeon Paddy is harboring a serious grudge against Billy.
In Sin City, the geezer quartet gloms onto Diana (Mary Steenburgen), a charmingly sassy lounge singer who’s searching for life’s second act. Forced to spend time in the casino until they can get rooms at the Aria, Sam befriends a drag queen (Roger Bart), while Archie’s blackjack winnings catapult them into a palatial penthouse suite that’s suddenly available now that 50 Cent has cancelled his weekend reservation. That becomes the site for one of the wildest party Vegas has ever seen and a place for the foursome to work out their respective emotional issues.
Predictably, episodically scripted by Dan Fogelman (“The Guilt Trip,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love”) and amiably directed by Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure” franchise), it’s chock full of good-humored one-liners – like when Archie tries Red Bull vodka, describing it as “getting drunk and electrocuted at the same time” – and they judge a poolside bikini contest.
Since the four accomplished actors genuinely seem to be having a ball, the unpretentious fun is contagious. FYI: When Billy and Diana take that scary rooftop ride, it’s real! It was filmed on the Stratosphere Hotel’s X-Scream.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Last Vegas” is a disarmingly slick ‘n’ spicy 7, aimed specifically at the 76 million baby boomers, who have tremendous spending power and are becoming increasingly important to Hollywood.
Susan Granger’s review of “Ender’s Game” (Summit Entertainment)
Set in the future, Earth is still recovering from an alien invasion 50 years earlier, when giant, ant-like creatures called Formics attacked. After a daring aerial maneuver by a heroic Maori pilot, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), the Formics retreated to their home colony, but Earthlings still fear their return. To combat that eventuality, the International Fleet has developed Battle School, situated in an orbiting space station. It’s a program in which Earth’s brightest and most gifted children are trained to fight the Formics. As Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) repeatedly insists to Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), a coldly calculating lad named Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) shows the most promise as a future Commander – but first he must prove himself.
Based on Orson Scott Card’s 1985 coming-of age novel, it’s dutifully adapted and humorlessly directed by South Africa’s Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), who divides Ender’s story into two parts: his rigorous training and the climactic battle. The CGI zero-gravity exercises, pitting one student squad against another, demonstrate Ender’s strategic cleverness, but he’s emotionally torn between ruthlessness and compassion, as he’s befriended by fellow Cadet Petra Arakian (Hailee Steinfeld) and brutally bullied by Cadet Officer Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias).
While in the novel, Ender ages from six to 12, Hood has compressed the timeline into one year, so teenage Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) can make the transition convincingly, indicating the intelligent adolescent’s crucial crisis-of-conscience. Credit should go to production designers Sean Haworth and Ben Proctor (“Tron: Legacy”), along with cinematographer Don McAlpine, Digital Domain, and composer Steve Jablonsky (“Transformers”).
What makes this different from most sci-fi movies is the provocative question of defensive genocide, and Hood offers no easy answers. Hopefully, viewers will debate this relevant geopolitical issue, along with the use of preemptive strikes, child soldiers and drone warfare – long after the screen goes dark.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ender’s Game” is a shallow, simulated 6, demonstrating the importance of tolerance, compassion and empathy, a worthy message despite author Orson Scott Card’s virulent anti-gay statements.