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“Project Almanac”

Susan Granger’s review of “Project Almanac” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Found footage and an undiscovered basement laboratory fuel this teen time-travel adventure.

When socially awkward high-school science whiz David Raskin (Jonny Weston) is searching in the attic for a project to propel a scholarship grant to attend MIT, he discovers a bewildering image from his seventh birthday party on his late father’s video camera.

Convinced that his father invented a temporal displacement device, David and nerdy buddies – Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner) – are determined to follow his dad’s detailed instructions to replicate it – with David’s giggly younger sister, Christina (Ginny Gardner), documenting the process.

But their increasingly incredible experiments desperately need a stronger power source, so they hook up to a car battery that belongs to pretty, popular Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), on whom David has a secret crush. And sparks fly as they time-travel.

Predictably, their first ‘jump’ is a chemistry exam ‘do over,’ another is to wreak revenge on bullies and score at the Lottery. But when they frolic at the music festival Lollapalooza, having bought used backstage passes on E-Bay, something goes awry. Blame it on ripples from The Butterfly Effect.

Although they pledged never to time-travel alone, guilt-riddled David does – with disastrous results.

Screenwriters Andrew Deutschman and Jason Harry Pagan, along with novice director Dean Israelite, concentrate on the prep work, more than the consequences. What could have been a poignant reunion between David and his dad is almost dismissed, along with other provocative opportunities.

Among other pop culture allusions, the teens refer to the sci-fi thriller “Looper” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

But the hand-held camera work is formulaically shaky and the clichéd jump cuts are distracting. Produced by Michael Bay, this film, not surprisingly, has been gathering dust on-the-shelf for a year.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Project Almanac” is a frenetic 4. “Back to the Future” it isn’t.

“The Boy Next Door”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boy Next Door” (Universal Pictures)

 

In this wannabe erotic thriller, Jennifer Lopez plays Claire Peterson, Southern California’s most glamorous high school teacher, with Ryan Guzman as Noah Sandborn, her hunky 19 year-old neighbor.

Lonely Claire has been separated from her philandering husband Garrett (John Corbett) for almost a year, raising her asthmatic teenage son Kevin (Ian Nelson) in the San Fernando Valley.  Her best friend/high school vice-principal Vicky (Kristen Chenoweth) is urging her to move on.

That’s when charming Noah moves in – for an ill-advised one-night stand, which Claire immediately regrets the next morning.

But psychotic Noah’s not about to abandon Claire, whom he describes as “a woman to be cherished.”  So he becomes her obsessive stalker, adding the threat of blackmail.

So when Noah corners impressionable Kevin, saying, “I love your mother’s cookies,” unintended laughter inevitably erupts at the inappropriate double-entendre.

Simplistically scripted by former Los Angeles prosecutor Barbara Curry, it’s ineptly directed by Rob Cohen (“The Fast and Furious,” “DragonHeart”) as a micro-budgeted, gender-reversal “Fatal Attraction.” But none of the pulpy melodrama is even remotely believable.

Not only is Noah a skilled handyman – fixing her car and garage door – but he’s also a computer hacker and kickboxer, when he’s not quoting from Homer’s “The Iliad” – all to impress this English lit teacher.

While 27 year-old Ryan Guzman (“Step Up: All In”) certainly doesn’t look 19, “American Idol” judge Jennifer Lopez, now 45, has never looked lovelier – or more seductive.

Problem is: neither of them can act convincingly.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Boy Next Door” is an asinine 2. Improbably overheated, it’s a new low for J.Lo – evoking ludicrous memories of “Gigli.”

“Strange Magic”

Susan Granger’s review of “Strange Magic” (Touchstone Pictures/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

 

Supposedly inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” George Lucas’s animated story, filled with fairies, elves and goblins, is grotesquely weird.

Set in a place of enchantment, this mythic world is divided into parts. The happy, colorful Fairy Kingdom is ruled by a King (Alfred Molina) with two daughters. When the eldest, feisty, purple-winged Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood), catches her betrothed Roland (Sam Palladio) cheating on her, she vows she’ll never fall in love again.

Meanwhile, her flighty younger sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) remains an incorrigible flirt, oblivious to the fact that her best friend Sunny (Elijjah Kelley), a tiny, troll-like elf, has a serious crush on her.

Presiding over the Dark Forest is the gnarled, bitter Bog King (Alan Cumming), who loathes the concept of love because it’s chaotic: “Love is dangerous. It weakens. It rots…it destroys order. Without order, there is chaos.”

Primrose flowers separate both lands; their petals can be used to make powerful love potions. But the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth), who knows how to create the concoctions, has been kidnapped and imprisoned inside the Bog King’s dungeon.  Merry mischief ensues.

Working from a bland script he co-wrote with David Berenbaum and Irene Mecchi, director Gary Rydstrom (a seven-time Oscar-winner for sound designer), creates an eerie woodland, filled with garish, photo-realistic imagery – credited to Lucasfilm Animation Singapore and Industrial Light & Magic.

Problem is: while the lyrics of the pop-music covers, chosen by “Moulin Rouge!” music director Marius de Vries, were meant to tell the hackneyed story, the mixtape quickly become an annoying distraction.

Obviously, the message of the movie is: “Never judge someone by how he or she looks.”

Apparently, George Lucas created this patchwork fantasy for his three daughters whom, he said, deserved something a little more feminine than “Star Wars,” which was designed for 12 year-old boys. (FYI:  the potbellied Fairy King bears more than a passing resemblance to Lucas himself.)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Strange Magic” is a bizarre 4. Let’s just say it’s a bad “Dream.”

 

“The Humbling”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Humbling” (Millennium Entertainment)

 

Sometimes two artists work on the same idea at the same time: one succeeds, the other fails.

When Barry Levinson was adapting Philip Roth’s 2009 penultimate novel about the angst of an aging actor, I suspect he had no idea Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was making “Birdman.”

But he was. And Michael Keaton’s performance will be remembered, while Al Pacino’s probably will not.

Quoting Oscar Levant’s observation, “There’s a thin line between genius and insanity,” Pacino plays 67 year-old Simon Axler, who loses his grip on reality during a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” deliberately taking a face-first dive into the orchestra pit.

Recuperating at a psychiatric hospital, he’s approached by another patient, Sybil (Nina Arianda), who caught her wealthy husband is sexually abusing their young daughter. Having seen Simon play a murderer on-screen, she wants to hire Simon to kill him.

When Simon’s released, he retreats to find solace at his bucolic Connecticut home. But the peace-of-mind he’s looking for is shattered by the sudden appearance of Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the thirty-something daughter of old friends (Dianne Wiest, Dan Hedaya), along with persistent Sybil.

Though Pegeen claims to be a lesbian, she flirts outrageously with Simon, winding up in bed with him, much to the chagrin of two of her former lovers (Kyra Sedgwick, Billy Porter), who are stalking her, and bewilderment of Simon’s loyal housekeeper (Mary Louise Wilson).

Al Pacino is the embodiment of a despairing, self-absorbed performer who cannot separate art from life, a concept that’s amplified by meetings with his agent (Charles Grodin) and Skype sessions with his psychiatrist (Dylan Baker).

Shot in 20 days in and around Barry Levinson’s Fairfield County estate, it’s unevenly scripted by Buck Henry (“The Graduate”) and Michal Zebede and indulgently directed by Levinson.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Humbling” is an awkwardly sexist, tragi-comedic 3, serving – at best – as eccentric Pacino’s inventively off-beat master class in acting.

“Two Days, One Night”

Susan Granger’s review of “Two Days, One Night” (Sundance Selects)

 

There’s so much suspense in the Dardenne brothers’ affecting drama – for which Marion Cotillard has been Oscar-nominated as Best Actress – that it’s tempting to call it a socio-economic thriller.

Set a working-class community in the filmmakers’ native Belgium, it revolves around a stressed-out wife/mother who tries to persuade her factory co-workers to forgo bonuses in order to get her job back.

Recently returned from medical leave during which she was treated for depression, Sandra Bya (Cotillard) discovers that her place at the solar-panel company has been eliminated.

In her absence, the company offered her 16 co-workers a choice: if her job is eliminated, each of them will receive a bonus of 1,000 Euros (approx. $1,200). If they agree to give up the bonus, she can return.  A vote has already been taken but Sandra’s friend convinces the boss to hold another vote on Monday.

Encouraged by her stolid, supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra must track down and visit her cash-strapped colleagues, hoping to save her job. Will a majority agree to make the personal sacrifice on her behalf?

Embodying weary, worried Sandra, Marion Cotillard (Oscar-winner as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”) radiates tearful anxiety, swallowing her pride (along with large quantities of Xanax), pleading for her peers’ pity and grasping at each shred of hope during the weekend-long crusade.

Filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Rosetta,” “The Son,” “The Kid with a Bike”) are renowned for their austere neo-realism, having twice won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. In this case, they detail the emotional impact of each encounter, as several of Sandra’s downtrodden colleagues explain how desperately they need the additional 1,000 Euros for school tuition and home repairs.

In French with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Two Days, One Night” is a compassionate 8, posing an intriguing ethical dilemma.

“Cake”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cake” (Cinelou Releasing)

 

Two things to be learned from this half-baked, low-budget melodrama: 1) Jennifer Aniston has the best pop-culture publicist in Hollywood, and 2) There’s such a shortage of top-tier roles for women that she’s been catapulted onto the Awards circuit.

Suffering chronic pain, cranky Claire Simmons (Aniston) is first seen as part of a support group, led by Annette (Felicity Huffman), who encourages everyone to express their feelings about the suicide of a fellow member named Nina (Anna Kendrick).

“’Way to go, Nina,” Claire caustically declares – after describing Nina’s plunge off a Los Angeles freeway onto the top of a flatbed truck headed for Mexico.

Acerbic, pill-popping Claire has anesthetized herself from the world since the automobile accident that scarred her, alienated her husband (Chris Messina) and killed their young son.

Wallowing in misery, perpetually scowling Claire is asked if she really wants to recover by her perceptive physical therapist (Mamie Gummer).

When Claire starts hallucinating about Nina, she invents a phony pretext to seek out Nina’s grieving widower, Roy (Sam Worthington), who’s been left with a young son, and a bizarre friendship slowly develops.

Deliberately un-glamorous with stringy, unwashed hair and scars on her face and body, Aniston epitomizes drab, dowdy and depressed.  Yet she’s also privileged, living in a hilltop home with a swimming pool and devotedly cared for by her long-suffering Mexican housekeeper, Silvana (Oscar-nominated Adriana Barraza from “Babel”).

According to an NY Times interview, Aniston stopped exercising, gained weight, and went without make-up for the role. Her research included interviewing her friend/stunt double Stacy Courtney, whose leg was mangled by a boat propeller, forcing her to endure several painful surgeries and a grueling regimen of physical therapy.

Formulaically written Patrick Tobin and subtly directed by Daniel Barnz, this is the first film from one-time Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton’s indie label Cinelou Releasing – with contrived cameos from William H. Macy and Lucy Punch.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Cake” is a flaky 5. Pass up this underwhelming confection.

 

“The Wedding Ringer”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Wedding Ringer” (Screen Gems/Sony Entertainment)

 

As his wedding to Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) draws close, financially successful tax attorney Doug Harris (Josh Gad) realizes he, literally, has no close friends to be groomsmen, escorting the seven bridesmaids down the aisle.

In desperation, he turns to Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart), a professional Best Man for help. Predictably, the buddy-for-hire turns into a bromance, as Jimmy’s companionship changes Doug’s nerdy life.

The best parts are in the Coming Attractions trailer, like when Doug first views his prospective groomsmen, noting that they resemble “The Goonies, all grown-up and turned into rapists.” And a disastrous pre-nuptial dinner party during which “Granny” Cloris Leachman catches on fire.

Jeremy Gerelick makes his directing debut, working from a hackneyed, stereotypical script he wrote, years ago, with Jay Lavender, his collaborator on “The Break-Up,” it’s a simple premise that begs the basic question: How did socially awkward Doug win Gretchen’s heart?

Unable to otherwise elicit laughter from contrived jokes about rape and child molestation, Gerelick encourages motormouth’d Kevin Hart (“Ride Along”) to use profuse profanity and stages raunchy, degenerate bachelor-party hijinks with a pseudo-Russian stripper who smears peanut butter on Doug’s private parts and brings in a beagle as a perverse “service dog.”

In addition to humiliating Cloris Leachman, Garelick wastes the talents of Ken Howard, Mimi Rogers and Olivia Thirby, cast as Gretchen’s family. And if Josh Gad’s voice sounds familiar, he was Olaf in Disney’s popular “Frozen.”

FYI: You may notice the now-defunct Miramax logo, so here’s the story. Written back in 2002, the screenplay was stored in a New Jersey warehouse with 18,000 boxes of detritus when Disney sold Miramax to a financial consortium in 2010.

In 2011, producer Adam Fields acquired the rights to mine unproduced Miramax properties, including this, which was initially titled “The Golden Tux.” It was originally intended for Vince Vaughn, who opted to star in “Wedding Crashers” (2005) instead.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Wedding Ringer” fumbles with an un-funny 3. Decline to attend.

“Paddington”

Susan Granger’s review of “Paddington” (Dimension Films/StudioCanal)

 

Beginning with an old black-and-white newsreel prologue, set in Peru, this is the sweetly playful story of a plucky, young orphaned bear poignantly searching for a friendly face in London’s Paddington Station.

That’s where he’s first spotted by the Brown family, returning home from a holiday. Kindly Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) is immediately smitten by the fretful, forlorn fellow, while her husband (Hugh Bonneville) and children (Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin) are less enamored. Only elderly Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) seems to realize that they need Paddington as much as he needs them.

Naming the rambunctious bear Paddington after the train station, the family soon comes to appreciate not only his orange marmalade addiction but also his comic misadventures, even as they endeavor to find the British explorer who, years ago, visited “Darkest Peru” and befriended Paddington’s ursine family in the rainforest.

But anthropomorphic Paddington has also attracted the attention of scheming taxidermist Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), who is determined to add him to her Natural History Museum collection.

Adapted from Michael Bond’s “A Bear Called Paddington” (1958) by Hamish McColl and writer/director Paul King, it seamlessly combines live-action with superbly fluid CGI from London’s Framestore.  As itinerant street buskers, a five-piece calypso band is a unifying device, while an attic dollhouse magically reveals the family-at-home.

Voicing impeccably polite Paddington is Ben Whishaw, who played “Q” in “Skyfall.”  Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”) is engaging, while Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) is skeptical. The new “Dr. Who” Time Lord Peter Capaldi plays a nosy neighbor, Matt “Little Britain” Lucas is a cab driver, and Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent is the German antiques dealer who identifies Paddington’s explorer’s hat.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Paddington” is an engaging, enchanting 8. It’s a charming, compassionate family film.

“Selma”

Susan Granger’s review of “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Ava DuVernay’s film about the voting-rights struggle of 1965 is not only timely but relevant, given the continuing racial turmoil over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

The historical drama begins with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, then meeting in the Oval Office with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), whom he urges to support passage of a national Voting Rights Act.

To underscore the need for change in March, 1965, Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership advisors travel to Selma, Alabama, for a peaceful, non-violent protest – then boldly march 50 miles from Selma to the state’s capital of Montgomery.

Stressing that raising white America’s consciousness is as crucial as organizing black communities, King outlines his three principles of protest: “Negotiate, demonstrate, resist.”

Hideous brutality erupts. Opposition comes not only from Sheriff Jim Clark (Tim Houston) and his posse on the Edmund Pettus Bridge but also Alabama’s contemptible Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Determined to discourage King by monitoring his movements and disrupting his marriage to Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) leaks secret F.B.I. recordings of King’s adulterous liaisons.

First-time screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay  (“Middle of Nowhere,” “I Will Follow”) ambitiously condense years of anecdotal history into solemn, yet stirring expository dialogue and introduce supporting characters whose specific purpose is to embody differing points-of-view.  Co-producer Oprah Winfrey plays an elderly churchwoman unable to register to vote.

So it’s David Oyelowo’s powerful, provocative portrayal that electrifies.  Born in Oxford, England, to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo astutely reflects Dr. King’s oratorical cadence and canny political strategy. Had Dr. King not been assassinated in 1968, just three years after the Selma march, he would have been 86 on January 16.

As for the controversy over the depiction of President Johnson, it’s not unusual; debates about historical accuracy also plagued Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Selma” is an inspiring, impassioned 8, delivering Dr. King’s reverberating message of perseverance.

“Taken 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “Taken 3” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Liam Neeson returns as former CIA operative Bryan Mills in this third segment in the action-packed franchise.

Set in pedestrian Los Angeles, rather than exotic Istanbul or Paris, it begins with a cold-blooded murder, as heavily tattooed Russian mobsters execute an innocent accountant because they’re owed money and there’s none in his boss’s safe.

At the same time, Bryan Mills is visited by his angst-riddled ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), whose marriage to wealthy Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott) is floundering. Shortly afterwards, Lenore’s body is found in Mills’ bed – with her throat cut. And Mills is the primary suspect.

Determined to protect his now-college age daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and track down Lenore’s killer, Mills goes “down the rabbit hole,” dodging the LAPD, led by Detective Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker).

Illogically scripted by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson and directed by Olivier Megaton (“Transporter 3,” “Colombiana”), it lacks the essential ingredients that propelled the first two thrillers: namely, a persuasive plot and the compelling need for an anguished, aging, perennially pursued father  with a “particular set of skills” to rescue a kidnapped member of his family.

What it offers, instead, is a domestic melodrama punctuated by discordant series of screeching, seemingly endless car chases, careening around the Southern California freeways. It seems obvious from the getgo who the villain is, so there’s little surprise when his culpability is revealed.

Unexpectedly transformed into a middle-aged action hero back in 2009, 6’4” Liam Neeson has emerged as the craggy, Celtic John Wayne of his generation.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Taken 3” is a tediously trifling 3, laying generic groundwork for Mills’ grandchild to be kidnapped if and when there’s another installment.