“45 Years”

Susan Granger’s review of “45 Years” (Sundance Selects)


Set in the rural Norfolk countryside, Andrew Heigh’s emotional drama revolves around a middle-class English couple who are preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary when the arrival of a mysterious letter shakes the foundation of their seemingly idyllic marriage.

Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) Mercer are stunned when an official dispatch from Switzerland informs Geoff that the body of his former German girlfriend, Katya, has been found.

Back in 1962, when Geoff and Katya were hiking in the Alps, Katya fell into a fissure in a glacier. Since they were pretending to be married, Geoff was officially listed as her next of kin and, as such, has been asked to identify Katya’s recently recovered, perfectly preserved corpse.

After receiving the disturbing news, Geoff becomes increasingly preoccupied with memories of Katya and, when questioned, he confesses he would have married Katya had she lived.

Noting, “I can hardly be cross with something that happened before we existed, can I?” emotionally strained, increasingly jealous Kate, nevertheless, feels compelled to search in the attic for Alpine photographs of Katya, one of which reveals that she was pregnant at the time of her death.

Significantly, Kate and Geoff are childless, devoted only to each other and their Alsatian dog Max.

Adapting “In Another Country” from David Constantine’s “Under the Dam” short-story collection, writer-director Andrew Heigh once again explores the naturalistic complexities of intimacy, as he did in “Weekend” (2011), which he considers a thematic companion piece.

While several poignant songs, like The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” evoke nostalgic memories, there is no musical score.

Basically, this is an exquisite tour-de-force by two of the finest actors in British cinema: 68 year-old Charlotte Rampling (“Stardust Memories,” “The Verdict”) and 77 year-old Tom Courtenay (“Quartet,” “The Dresser”). Rampling has never received an Oscar nomination – and she certainly deserves one for this performance, as does Courtenay.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “45 Years” is a compassionate, elegant 8, subtly delineating a devastating drama.



“Son of Saul”

Susan Granger’s review of “Son of Saul” (Sony Pictures Classics)


Set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in October, 1944, this powerful, poignant story revolves around a Hungarian Jewish prisoner named Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig). He’s a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners assigned the grim task of carrying corpses from the gas chamber to the crematorium, then carting away the ashes to be discarded.

As Allied Forces draw closer to the camp, the pace of killing is accelerated. Among the dead, Saul finds the body of a young boy he claims as his son, and he becomes obsessed with finding a rabbi among the prisoners to say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) and give the child a proper burial.

Inspired by “Voices from Beneath the Ashes,” true tales from Auschwitz which was published in Jean-Paul Sartre’s periodical “Les Temps Modernes,” Hungarian-born writer/director Laszlo Nemes noted: “The story of the Holocaust is not the story of the exceptions who survived. It is the story of the dead.”

Co-scripting with Clara Royer, first-time feature film director Nemes reveals the agony solely through Saul’s perception, as cinematographer Matyas Erdely consigns violence and nudity into the un-focused background, along with the desperate wailing and persistent screaming. Adding to the chilling effect, there is no musical score.

As a former watchmaker-turned locksmith, Saul’s urgency is further heightened by plans for an upcoming Sonderkommando rebellion and their interaction with SS guards and Oberkapos (superior officers).

“You’ve failed the living to help the dead,” he’s told.

So add “Son of Saul” to the pantheon of visceral, visually striking Holocaust films that includes “Schindler’s List,” “Shoah,” “The Grey Zone” and “Life is Beautiful.”

In Hungarian, Yiddish, German and Polish with English subtitles, “Son of Saul” is an intense, engrossing 8, an existential warning from history – and Hungary’s Official Selection for the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.


“Ugly Lies the Bone”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ugly Lies the Bone” (Roundabout Underground Black Box: Oct.,2015)

In the World Premiere of this new drama, writer Lindsey Ferrentino confronts the topical dilemma of the wounded female soldier whose biggest battle is on the home front.

Jess (Mamie Gummer) has just returned to her hometown on Florida’s “Space Coast” after her third tour in Afghanistan. After being nearly killed by an improvised explosive device (IED), she’s in a pain management program, bravely trying to stretch her limbs and move her scarred skin – since third-degree burns cover over 90% of her body.

But it’s her deeply scarred face that reflects her enduring emotional agony.

After the suspension of NASA’s shuttle program, Titusville’s economy has plummeted. Jess’s mother (Caitlin O’Connell) suffers from dementia. Her schoolteacher sister Kacie (Karron Graves) is struggling to make ends meet, while Kacie’s boyfriend, Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen), lives on disability for a knee injury.

Jess’s former boyfriend, Stevie (Chris Stack) is now married and working as a gas station/convenience store clerk. He shares a memorably poignant scene with Jess, as she asks him to describe what she looked like before the burns disfigured her.

Helping her tenuous grip on sanity, Jess is participating in a new form of therapy which involves Virtual Reality headgear and a disembodied vocal guide to psychically take her out of the painful present and into tranquility.

Director Patricia McGregor was wise in casting talented, versatile Mamie Gummer. The oldest daughter of Meryl Streep, Mamie made her New York stage debut 10 years ago in “Mr. Marmalade” and recently appeared on-screen opposite her mother in Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash.”

But any play is only as good as its script – and Lindsey Ferrentino needs to do more work. Clocking in at 75 minutes without an intermission, it’s overly bleak and needs to be fleshed out, particularly the supporting roles.

FYI: The title is allegedly derived from Albert Einstein’s couplet about the impermanence of beauty.

Apparently, Ferrentino was inspired by a therapeutic video game called Snow World, in which burn victims are immersed in a wintry landscape, complete with penguins. After the show, audience members can try the game in the lobby.

“Ugly Lies the Bone” has been extended at the Roundabout Underground’s Black Box through December 6. For ticket information, call 212-719-1300 or go to roundaboutheatre.org.



Susan Granger’s review of “Spotlight” (Open Road)


Sure to wind up in many 10 Best lists this year, this is the fascinating, true crime story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that revealed the Roman Catholic Church’s systematic ‘cover-up’ of pedophile priests.

Spotlight is the name of the Globe’s investigative team, headed by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and comprised of Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sarah Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They report to managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), whose father figured prominently in the Watergate-themed “All the President’s Men.”

After the Globe was bought by the New York Times in 2001, there’s a new, cost-cutting boss, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), who is not only Jewish but also an out-of-towner. He fearlessly urges them to pursue molestation allegations against a single priest, a subject the newspaper has traditionally ignored under tacit pressure from Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) and officials in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Spotlight soon learns that it’s not an isolated incident. Indeed, scores of similar claims have been privately settled by the Church’s evasive attorney, Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), outside of the legal system, and those involving paperwork have been sealed by complicit judges. Thereby “turning child abuse into a cottage industry.”

Scripted as a fact-based, journalistic procedural by Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”) and director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”), it reveals the institutional conspiracy that protected these predators and perpetuated their heinous behavior, moving them from parish to parish.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t allow for much character development on the part of the Spotlight team, who doggedly pursue leads and interview victims and parishioners who are willing to talk. A notable exception is testy Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who steers them in the right direction when he realizes their serious intent.

Nevertheless, the entire ensemble scores – delivering solid performances.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Spotlight” is a taut, compelling 10, illuminating a timely, still-relevant issue.



Susan Granger’s review of “Trumbo” (Bleecker Street)


In the late 1940s, Hollywood filmmakers were terrorized by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Committee, searching for Communists in TinselTown.

Egged on by judgmental patriot John Wayne (David James Elliott) and vicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), the Committee, chaired by J. Parnell Thomas (James Dumont), targeted ‘suspicious’ citizens, subpoenaing them and asking, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Primary among those was Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), whose mockery of the Committee landed him in jail after being convicted of contempt of Congress. He was the leader of the “Hollywood Ten,” who were blacklisted and unable to find work.

While others fled overseas, Trumbo refused to leave. Instead, he used several pseudonyms, churning out scripts for many pictures including “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One,” garnering two Best Original Screenplay Oscars.

While most of Trumbo’s work was for schlocky B-picture mogul Frank King (John Goodman), eventually Stanley Kubrick and Otto Preminger defied the notorious blacklist, giving Trumbo credit for his work on “Spartacus” and “Exodus,” respectively.

Habitually writing in the bathtub with a long-stemmed cigarette holder clenched between his teeth and a tumbler of Scotch at his side, Bryan Cranson (TV’s “Breaking Bad”) is superb as the highly-principled idealist, supported by his loyal wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and activist daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning).

The strong ensemble also includes comedian Louis C.K. as cynical Arlin Herd (a composite of several screenwriters), Michael Stuhlbarg as enigmatic Edward G. Robinson, and Dean O’Gorman as outspoken Kirk Douglas.

Working from a glib script by John McNamara (TV’s ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”), adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography, director Jay Roach (TV’s “Game Change,” “Recount”) astutely utilizes archival footage and re-creates newsreels, delivering intriguing glimpses of Robert Taylor and Humphrey Bogart.

FYI: Years ago, Martin Ritt also explored this notorious era in “The Front,” starring Woody Allen.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Trumbo” is an eloquent 8, focusing on one of the most shameful periods in Hollywood history.


“Rock the Kasbah”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rock the Kasbah” (Open Road)


Bill Murray is amusing – albeit briefly – as Richie Lanz, a once-famous, ‘60s-era music manager who now operates out of a dilapidated motel room in Van Nuys.

Times are tough, so when he gets an offer to book his last remaining client/secretary Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) on a USO tour in Afghanistan, they’re on the next flight to Kabul.

Problem is: when Ronnie realizes that she’s in a bombed-out, war-torn country, she freaks out, abandoning Richie without his wallet or passport.

As luck would have it, Richie befriends a pair of opportunistic American arms dealers – Nick (Danny McBride) and Jake (Scott Caan) – and a sympathetic mercenary, Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), which leads to his becoming the houseguest of a fierce Pashtun chief whose daughter, Salima (Leem Lubany), is a talented singer; her ambition is to perform on an Afghanistan talent show.

And that’s when Richie’s not otherwise occupied with Miss Merci (Kate Hudson), who runs a brothel out of a double-wide trailer on the streets of Kabul.

Very loosely inspired by the true story of Setara Hussainzada, the first woman to defy convention by discarding her hijab to sing and dance on TV’s “Afghan Star,” Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol,” it’s scripted by Mitch Glazer (“Scrooged”) and directed by Barry Levinson, who did social satire/political farce much better in “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Wag the Dog.”

Filmed in Morocco, Murray’s most memorable moment occurs when he’s singing “Smoke on the Water” a cappella during a dinner in the desert. Murray sang before in “Stripes” (1981) and “Lost in Translation” (2003), but none of this compares with the hilarity of Murray’s “St. Vincent” (2014).

FYI: After the U.S. drove the Taliban out of Kabul, “Afghan Star” became a popular symbol of secular culture – and its tumultuous history is chronicled in the 2009 documentary “Afghan Star.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rock the Kasbah” is a silly, sluggish 4 – only sporadically funny.




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


Michael Almereyda’s cinematic portrait of social scientist Stanley Milgram recalls the methodology of his notorious psychology experiment.

As an assistant professor at Yale in 1961, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) decided to explore the concept of “blind obedience to malevolent authority.”

Colleagues and volunteers were recruited and divided into two groups: the teacher – a.k.a. Experimenter – and the learner. The teacher was given a list of questions to ask, and when the learner’s answer was incorrect, the teacher was to deliver a series of painful electric shocks.

What the teacher didn’t know was that the learner was an integral part of the experiment, that the levers they pushed were phony, the screams faked. While some participants objected, refused and left, a majority of the teachers continued the experiment despite the learners’ agony.

Milgram explains how this turns ordinary people into compliant instruments of the state, as in Nazi Germany, asking: “Could it be that SS official (Adolf) Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?”

That question might also apply to the barbaric prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. As Milgram notes, “Human nature can be studied but not escaped, especially your own.”

In the detached way he delineates Milgram’s character, writer/director Michael Almereyda (“Nadja,” “Hamlet,” “Cymbeline”) demonstrates the ethical dilemma between humanism and clinical objectivity. But the metaphoric scenes in which an elephant literally follows Milgram down a corridor carry the concept to the extreme.

There’s strong support from Winona Ryder, as Milgram’s wife, along with John Leguizamo, Anthony Edwards, Jim Gaffigan, Dennis Haysbert, Kellan Lutz, Josh Hamilton and Anton Yelchin.

FYI: Stanley Milgram went from Yale to Harvard to City College of New York, enjoying some celebrity in the 1970s when his book was published; he died of a heart attack in 1984.

Unfortunately, another similar film “The Stanford Prison Experiment” came out earlier this year and it’s even more disturbing than Stanley Milgram’s Obedience study.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Experimenter” is a provocative, stylized 6, concluding that, while people can be turned into puppets, we still have free will.



Susan Granger’s review of “Burnt” (The Weinstein Company)


Attention: Foodies! While this culinary redemption tale features delectable dishes, the chef should have added a bit more spice.

After scruffy, rebellious Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) shucks a million oysters as penance, he leaves New Orleans and moves to London, determined to regain the fame he once enjoyed as a celebrated, two-Michelin-starred chef in Paris – before addiction to drugs and alcohol ruined his reputation.

Hired as head chef by his old frenemy/maître d’ Tony (Daniel Bruhl), Adam is obsessed with winning that coveted third Michelin star, the highest possible rating from the French restaurant guide.

To that end, he convinces miraculously forgiving Michel (Omar Sy) to work for him, along with Italian ex-con Max (Riccardo Scamarcio), David (Sam Keeley), and Helene (Sienna Miller), a talented, yet insecure sous chef and spunky single mother. Adam’s goal: “To make food that makes people stop eating.”

Working from a story by Michael Kalesniko, it’s clumsily scripted by Steven Knight (“The Hundred-Foot Journey”) and directed as a character study by John Wells (“August: Osage County,” “The Company Men”). Adam’s comeback is predictable from the get-go, including his relationship with Reese (Matthew Rhys), his longtime rival.

The most memorable scenes take place in chaos of the kitchen, particularly when Adam and his staff are anxiously preparing a meal for people they assume to be Michelin judges. Apparently, John Wells consulted with celebrity chef Mario Batali, and the authentic prep-and-plate sequences were supervised by Britain’s Marcus Warein.

And it’s not surprising when abusively arrogant Adam admits, “A kitchen is the only place I ever felt I really belonged.”

Unfortunately, the strong supporting cast (Uma Thurman, Alicia Vikander, Emma Thompson) is given too little to do. And there are far too many subplots that reek with melodrama.

FYI: Actor Bradley Cooper played a chef once before – in the short-lived TV series “Kitchen Confidential,” based on Anthony Bourdain’s memoir.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Burnt” is a bland, formulaic 5, recalling far better foodie flicks, like “Big Night,” “Ratatouille,” “Chef” and “Babette’s Feast.”.



Susan Granger’s review of “Freeheld”


Julianne Moore propels this based-on-a-true-court case of a lesbian cop who takes on an entire community to demand equal rights and justice for her domestic partner.

Working for the Ocean County Police Department in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, Laurel Hester (Moore) always kept quiet about her private life until she meets smart, eloquent garage mechanic Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) at a volleyball game.

When the two women decide to commit to one another and renovate a house, Laurel realizes that her longtime squad-car partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), feels betrayed because she’d never trusted him enough to confide in him.

Then, in 2004, Laurel is diagnosed with terminal, stage-four lung cancer. While receiving radiation, she tries to assign her pension to Stacie so she can retain their home. But the prejudiced county commissioners, called Freeholders, use a loophole to refuse to extend benefits to same-sex partners.

Although Laurel’s fellow officers initially fail to come to her defense, empathetic Dane does, becoming her staunch ally, along with a civil rights activist, Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), a self-described “loud, gay Jew” wearing a purple yarmulke, who turns Laurel’s appeal into a national front-page story involving a miscarriage of justice.

Laurel’s case changed New Jersey law, extending domestic partner benefits to all public employees, whether they’re married or not, paving the way to the subsequent Supreme Court legalization of same-sex marriage.

Earnestly scripted by Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”), it’s formulaically directed by Peter Sollett (“Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” “Raising Victor Vargas”). It’s not only miscast but also lacks that essential spark of excitement. And Steve Carell’s boisterous characterization is so stereotypical that it’s cringe-worthy.

Cynthia Wade’s 2007 Oscar-winning short documentary “Freeheld” was more effective.

FYI: Those who decry age disparity in on-screen romances should not that the difference between Julianne Moore and Ellen Page is a whopping 26 years. And working on this film inspired Ellen Page to come out of the closet about her real-life sexuality in Feb., 1914.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Freeheld” is a familiar 5, more of a tear-jerking TV movie-of-the-week.


“Beasts of No Nation”

Susan Granger’s review of “Beasts of No Nation” (Netflix/Bleecker Street)


If you want to watch real horror and feel timely terror, Netflix’s first original feature reveals the story of an innocent youngster who is recruited into the world of child soldiers.

In an unspecified West African country, pre-teen Agu (Abraham Attah) describes himself as “a good boy from a good family.” His father is a teacher; Agu and his brother have been raised as a devout Christians.

Suddenly, refugees come through his town, followed by soldiers, who kill whomever crosses their path, including Agu’s family and friends. After fleeing into the bush, Agu is caught and delivered to the demonic Commandant (Idris Elba), the intimidating, manipulative leader of an anti-government militia.

Given little to eat and no uniforms, Agu befriends another lad, silent Strika (Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nil Adom Quaye). Along with others, they’re indoctrinated, armed and dispatched to ambush an enemy caravan. As part of his initiation, the Commandant orders Agu to execute a prisoner with a machete.

Before long, Agu has adapted to this new life, filled with sexual abuse and violent village raids in which success is measured by the number of innocent men, women and children massacred without mercy.

A particularly gruesome trick he’s taught is how to put a grenade in someone’s mouth and wait to see what happens. Drugs are a part of the brainwashing ritual, causing orgiastic hallucinations in which Agu is not butchering human beings but demons.

Adapting Nigerian-American Uzodinma Iweala debut 2005 novel, writer/director/cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre,” “Jane Eyre,” HBO’s “True Detective”) filmed in Ghana on a $6 million budget, recruiting and training a local crew.

He camped out in the jungle with 200 non-pro actors, including newcomer Abraham Attah and former child soldiers from Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Delivering a powerful performance as the fearsome, despicable Commandant, Idris Elba noted, “What happened to this child is happening every day to a lot of people.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Beasts of No Nation” is an intense, severely scary 7, filled with explicitly brutal, nightmarish atrocities.