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“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.

“The Grand Seduction”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Grand Seduction” (eOne Films)

 

If you enjoyed “Waking Ned Devine,” “Calendar Girls” and “The Full Monty,” you’ll be amused by this charming comedy set in picturesque Newfoundland, Canada.

Times are tough in the tiny harbor of Tickle Head, where once-proud fishermen are out of work.  As narrator Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) notes, a cod moratorium ended their livelihood. Shamefacedly, they line up each week to collect their welfare checks from the postmistress (Liane Balaban). It’s decidedly depressing, but there’s hope. A “petrochemical byproduct repurposing facility” may open, and a factory means jobs, lots of jobs – for everyone. The stumbling block is that the oil company’s insurance requires that Tickle Head have a resident doctor – which it doesn’t.

Acting as Mayor, burly Murray puts out the word to everyone: “Find a doctor.” Coincidentally, Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), a slick, 29 year-old plastic surgeon is caught with cocaine in his carry-on at St. Johns airport and dispatched by a customs officer from Tickle Head to spend one month of community service there. During that time, it’s up to the civic-minded locals to convince Paul to not only to stay but also to sign a five-year contract. Immediately, houses are spruced up and the trash stashed away. Paul is an avid cricket fan, so the menfolk pretend to share his passion. Eavesdropping on his phone calls to his fiancée, the phone operator (Mary Walsh) learns that he likes Indian lamb dhansak, so it’s suddenly on the chowder house menu.  Since Paul’s father died when he was young, Murray takes him out in a dinghy and patiently teaches him how to fish while an old codger (Simon Pinsent) makes sure he gets a sizeable catch. But how long can this charade continue in the small harbor with a big heart?

Adapted by Ken Scott and Michael Dowse from a 2003 Quebecois film, “Seducing Dr. Lewis” by Jean-Francois Pouliot, director Don McKellar comes up with low-key, far-fetched fun.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Grand Seduction” is a scheming 6, filled with breezy Irish blarney.

“Begin Again”

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

 

Having experienced success with “Once” (2006), Irish writer/director John Carney does the same story twice, repeating the poignant formula of having two broken-hearted people bonding over music. This time, it’s a sweet-but-insecure songwriter/singer, Greta (Keira Knightly), and a self-destructive, cash-strapped recording executive, Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo).

Greta moved from London to Manhattan to be with her American boyfriend/songwriting partner, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), who, almost overnight, catapults into a major recording artist and, subsequently, dumps her for another woman.  Disconsolately singing in a dingy bar one night at the urging of her busker friend Steve (James Corden), Greta is spotted by Dan, who has managed to alienate his business partner Saul (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def), ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Inspired by Greta’s raw authenticity, Dan convinces her to collaborate with him on a demo album that’s recorded, guerrilla-style, throughout New York, incorporating the ambient sounds of the city. Problem is: she has no desire to be rich and famous; she just wants to share her music with the world.

As in “Once,” these characters are caught between achieving their personal ambition and maintaining their professional integrity. There are the now-predictable scenes depicting Greta and Dan sharing playlists, singing impromptu and improvisational composing. The most imaginative sequence occurs when Dan first spies Greta singing solo and imagines a fully orchestrated arrangement around her.

While affable Mark Ruffalo does rumpled authentically, Keira Knightly seems far too sophisticated to pull off naiveté.  That’s where the film falters. The press notes indicate that Keira actually does the whispery singing but her lips don’t quite sync up with the sound, which was obviously recorded, not on the mean streets, but in a studio with compositions by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander.

Originally, the title was “Can a Song Save Your Life?” which would have been far more apt for John Carney’s tribute to the healing powers of music.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Begin Again” is a bittersweet 6. “Once” again – buy the soundtrack.

“Tammy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tammy” (Warner Bros./New Line)

 

Having catapulted to stardom in “The Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “Identity Thief,” Melissa McCarthy has enough clout within the industry to co-write, produce and star in this ridiculously contrived comedy, collaborating with her husband, director Ben Falcone. Once again, she plays a brash, trash-talking woman whose arrogance conceals vulnerability and need for love and acceptance.

Disheveled Tammy is (McCarthy) not having a good day. First, she crashes her car into a deer, then gets fired from her job at Topper Jack’s, a greasy, fast-food restaurant. Returning home, she finds her husband (Nat Faxon) romancing their next-door neighbor (Toni Collette). Furious, Tammy packs her bag and marches off to tell her mother (Alison Janney) that she’s leaving town. But Tammy has neither money nor wheels – until Grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon) offers a car and more than $6,000 in cash. So angry, aggressive Tammy and her alcoholic, diabetic, promiscuous Grandma embark on a road trip.

At that point, the film completely loses credibility. Saucy, sexy Susan Sarandon is only 24 years older than McCarthy; even in a scraggly gray wig, she makes a far more interesting protagonist. Plus, Janney is 11 years older than McCarthy and 13 years younger than Sarandon.

As they head from Illinois toward Niagara Falls, making a wrong turn that lands them in Missouri, their frustrating encounters with men (Gary Cole, Mark Duplass) are so wretchedly underwritten that there’s genuine relief when they arrive at a Fourth of July party, hosted by Grandma’s wealthy lesbian cousin (Kathy Bates) and her partner (Sandra Oh).

Problem is: none of this is funny. Adding insult to injury, wasting the talents of Toni Collette (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Alison Janney (“The Help”), Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Dan Aykroyd (“Saturday Night Live”) on bit parts is a crime, augmented by the idiotic, unfocused antics of obnoxious Tammy as she tries to unload her emotional baggage and reconcile years of rejection and resentment.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tammy” is a tiresome, tedious 3 – with Melissa McCarthy taking an unfortunate pratfall.

“Snowpiercer”

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

 

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language production is a bold, compelling, fantastical action thriller.

When global warming was finally acknowledged as a worldwide threat, scientists sent a missile into space to lower Earth’s thermostat. Instead, the device triggered another Ice Age, killing everyone except those who managed to get onboard an immense bullet train that’s been circling the glacial planet for 17 years.

Passengers are strictly segregated by class, and compartmentalized order within the convoy is ruthlessly enforced by a grotesquely fascistic bureaucrat (Tilda Swinton) with her armed guards. When one of the impoverished dares to complain, his arm is inserted into a porthole, frozen and amputated. But rebellion is brewing in the slums in the back of the train, where restless Curtis (bearded Chris Evans, a.k.a. “Captain America”), encouraged by elderly, peg-legged Gilliam (John Hurt), decides to lead a guerrilla force to the front, where the train’s quasi-mythical inventor, enigmatic Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris) rules in Wizard-of-Oz-like mystery from the engine room.  Accompanied by his loyal friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and a determined mother (Olivia Spencer) whose child has been abducted, Curtis bribes a drug-addicted security expert (Song Kang-ho) and his drug-dazed daughter/apprentice (Ko Ah-sung) to open the locked ‘gates’ separating the railway cars by giving them Kronole, the hallucinogen they crave. As the insurgents move forward car-by-car, examining the self-sustaining ecosystem, one of their more memorable encounters is with a creepily cheerful schoolmarm (Alison Pill), another depicts the various luxuries enjoyed by the elite.

Based on a 1982 French graphic novel, “La Transperceneige,” it’s propelled by Bong Joon-ho’s imaginative visuality and gripping suspense, which more than compensate for the heavy-handed, dystopian allegory. Filmed on gimbals on interconnected soundstages at Prague’s Barrandov Studios in the Czech Republic for an astonishing $40 million, it’s not been widely distributed because Harvey Weinstein reportedly wanted to edit out 20 minutes and Bong refused.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Snowpiercer” hurtles by with an exciting, edge-of-your-seat 8 – a wild ride that’s one of the best of the year, so far.