“Demolition”

Susan Granger’s review of “Demolition” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

While wealthy Wall Street investment banker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), are bickering in their car, they’re blindsided and there’s a horrific crash.

Julia’s dead, but all Davis can think about is the package of Peanut M&Ms that got stuck in the chrome spiral of the hospital’s vending machine.

So he channels his numbing grief into writing the first in a series of confrontational letters to Champion Vending Machines, while – far too literally – heeding the advice of his anguished father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper).

“Repairing a human heart is like repairing an automobile,” Davis is told, “You have to take it apart – and examine everything. Then you can put it back together.”

Which means that when the refrigerator leaks, Davis bashes it apart. The same with the cappuccino machine, creaky bathroom door, light fixture and an office computer that freezes up. Eventually, Davis joins a wrecking crew, wielding a sledgehammer.

Meanwhile, sympathetic Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the vending machine company’s customer service representative, realizes that this widower’s angst goes far deeper than a package of Peanut M&Ms, so she impulsively calls him – at 2 a.m.; not surprisingly, a weird relationship develops between these two troubled souls.

But the most memorable, if somewhat misguided scene occur between Davis and Karen’s rebellious, classic rock-loving, pre-teen son, Chris (Judah Lewis), when the vulnerable, angst-riddled kid, searching for his identity, asks if he might be homosexual.

First-time screenwriter Bryan Sipe, French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Wild,” “Dallas Buyers Club”) and actor Jake Gyllenhaal work overtime to delineate Davis’s cryptic, almost sociopathic lack of empathy with clumsy dark comedy.

FYI: In a bizarre coincidence, in both “Southpaw” (2015) and “Demolition” (2016), Jake Gyllenhaal’s character’s wife dies in the opening scenes.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Demolition” is a flawed, dysfunctional 5, like the metaphoric street signs on which he fixates: Detour, Wrong Way, Dead End.

05

“Jane Got a Gun”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jane Got a Gun” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Unfortunately, the backstory on this revisionist Western is more interesting than what unfolds on-screen, as Natalie Portman plays Jane Hammond, a pistol-packin’ frontierswoman in the New Mexico Territory.

It begins in 1871, when Jane’s husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich), comes home, having been shot several times by the Bishop Boys, led by villainous John (Ewan McGregor), who – Bill says – are “comin’” to wreak revenge.

After depositing their daughter with a neighbor, Jane enlists help from her brooding ex-fiancé, gunslinger Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), who, apparently, was away too long, fighting in the Civil War but now, conveniently, dwells nearby. Together, they fortify the Hammond homestead, preparing for the Bishops’ siege.

Muddled flashbacks reveal that, seven years earlier, Jane left Huntsville, Missouri, toting her young daughter, joined a wagon train, only to be kidnapped and forced into prostitution – until Bill Hammond saved her.

Episodically scripted by Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis and Joel Edgerton, it’s heavy-handedly directed by Gavin O’Connor at a snail’s pace.

So what went wrong? Almost everything.

On the first day of production in March, 2013, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) abruptly quit, followed by her two leading men, Michael Fassbender and Jude Law, along with cinematographer Darius Khondji.

Director Gavin O’Connor (“Tumbleweeds,” “Warrior”) and cinematographer Many Walker (“Truth”) were recruited, along with Bradley Cooper, who then left to make “American Hustle.” Lawsuits followed – and were subsequently settled.

Despite the steadfast star power of Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) and Joel Edgerton’s willingness to exchange the juicy role of John Bishop for the part of Dan Frost, the original financing unraveled, only to be rescued by a long list of new producers (too many to count!) who have allowed the project to quietly ride off into the sunset.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jane Got a Gun” is a female-centric 5 – that one wishes were better.

05

 

 

“Misconduct”

Susan Granger’s review of “Misconduct” (Lionsgate Premiere)

 

Why would a neo-noir legal thriller, starring Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino, wind up on VOD, instead of in theaters? Because it’s inexcusably awful!

Set in New Orleans, the plot revolves around Ben Cahill (Josh Duhamel), an ambitious young lawyer working on a class-action involving Arthur Denning (Anthony Hopkins), a smugly corrupt Big Pharma kingpin.

Ben’s wife Charlotte (Alice Eve) is a registered nurse who has become a workaholic to cloak her depression after her recent miscarriage.

Suddenly, Ben’s seductive ex-girlfriend Emily (Malin Akerman) contacts him, telling him she’s got incriminating computer files that will indict Denning, who just happens to be her current lover.

But when ethically-challenged Ben takes the evidence to his firm’s senior partner, Charles Abrams (Al Pacino), Emily is mysteriously kidnapped.

After that, not much is coherent. There’s Denning’s forthright security specialist (Julia Stiles) and a terminally ill South Korean hit-man (Byung-hun Lee), careening around on a motorbike.

If screenwriters Simon Boyes and Adam Mason came up with anything original, it eluded me, while debuting feature-film director Shintaro Shimosawa (co-producer of “The Grudge” and its sequel) discards logical progression and pacing in favor of curious camera angles devised by cinematographer Michael Fimognari. He particularly favors focusing on one character’s reaction to what’s being said by someone else; it’s a distracting film-school device that quickly becomes tedious.

While Josh Duhamel does his best with the melodramatic absurdity, it’s obvious that both Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino simply cashed their paychecks and moved on to more promising projects.

As for Malin Akerman, her coldly calculated performance seems to be streamed directly from her role as scheming Lara Axelrod on TV’s “Billions.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Misconduct” is a misbegotten 2. It’s an $11 million mistake.

02

 

“Born To Be Blue”

Susan Granger’s review of “Born To Be Blue” (IFC Films)

 

Back in 1954, jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) made a dazzling vocal debut on Manhattan’s Birdland stage with Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard). That was after he’d worked with bebop pioneer Charlie Parker and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, establishing his soulful West Coast sound.

What followed, however, was a succession of barren years, blighted by Baker’s rampant heroin addiction. So, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Baker found himself on the West Coast, immersed in a movie about his life as “the James Dean of jazz,” falling in love with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), the actress playing his wife, who tries to help with his rehabilitation.

That’s the episode of Baker’s life that writer/director Robert Budreau has fictionalized. In reality, Baker declined an offer from Dino De Laurentis to play himself in a biopic that was subsequently never made.

Since Budreau offers little or no linear continuity, there’s also a contrived segment in 1966 in which two drug dealers brutally beat up Baker, knocking out his front teeth and destroying his lips, forcing him to re-learn to play his instrument with dentures.

After that humiliation, Baker is shown scraping the bottom of the musical barrel, playing trumpet wearing a sombrero as part of a mariachi band.

Watching a drug addict heat up that syringe time-after-time not only becomes tedious but also infuriating. In addition, since Budreau could not obtain the rights to use the original music, Ethan Hawke does his own singing, while trumpeter Kevin Turcotte re-creates Baker’s notes.

Undoubtedly, Hawke’s subtle rendition of Baker’s sad signature song, “My Funny Valentine,” is the film’s highlight.

Mercifully, Budreau concludes this sordid tale before Baker plunged to his death from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Born To Be Blue” is a flat 5. Better to listen to Chet Baker’s original recordings than bother with this imitation.

05

“I Saw the Light”

Susan Granger’s review of “I Saw the Light” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Country is America’s most popular music, and much of the credit goes to charismatic singer/songwriter Hank Williams.

Wearing an oversized, cream-colored cowboy hat, lanky Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) emerged from the local Alabama scene in the 1940s and ‘50s. Called “the hillbilly Shakespeare,” he was addicted to whiskey and women, strumming about sorrow, suffering and shame.

Eventually becoming a Grand Ole Opry star, he had dozens of hit records, including classics like “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Move It on Over,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Inspired by Colin Escott’s “Hank Williams: The Biography,” writer/director Mark Abraham (“Spy Game,” “Flash of Genius”) sets a plodding pace, focusing more on Williams tumultuous, self-destructive life than his creative genius, encompassing his marriage to ambitious Audrey Mae (Elizabeth Olsen) and her conflict with his overbearing mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones).

When he died on New Year’s Day, 1953, at the age of 29 in the back seat of his powder-blue Cadillac on the way to a concert, Williams’ last single was prophetically titled “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”

While classically trained British actor Tom Hiddleston – a.k.a. Loki in “Thor” and “Avengers” movies – is generally convincing as he sings Williams’ songs, he doesn’t have Williams’ distinctive twang. And that makes a difference, particularly for devoted fans.

So, I doubt this will join the top pantheon of musical biopics like Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” even Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”

FYI: In 1964, Williams’ life was first filmed, as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” regrettably starring lip-sync’ing George Hamilton; the part was originally intended for Elvis Presley. “Hank Williams First Nation” (2005) follows an elderly Cree tribesman’s journey to Nashville to find his hero. And “The Last Ride” (2012) envisions Williams’ final road trip.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “I Saw the Light” is a hazy 4. It’s just not illuminating.

04

Hollywood Has Re-Discovered Religion

Susan Granger’s Hollywood Has Re-Discovered Religion

 

While Biblical epics – like Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – have always been popular, Hollywood has now discovered that religion sells and, as everyone knows, that’s the bottom-line of show business.

So, right now, several inspirational movies can be seen at the multiplex. Whether they’re good or bad seems to make little difference to their faith-based audience, one that is thirsting for recognition.

Back in 2007, Sony Pictures established its own label – Affirm – for Christian evangelical projects, like “Heaven Is for Real,” starring Greg Kinnear, and its latest is the melodrama, “Miracles From Heaven,” with Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah.

Adapted by Randy Brown from Christy Beam’s 2015 memoir, directed by Patricia Riggen (“The 33”) and produced by megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes, it tells the amazing story of a nine year-old suburban Texas girl who inexplicably recovers from a hopeless medical condition after surviving a potentially deadly fall.

Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) experiences a crisis of faith when her daughter Anna (Kylie Rogers) is diagnosed with an incurable digestive disorder that distends her belly and causes chronic pain.  The entire Beam family becomes stressed-out as they struggle to pay for expensive treatments and consult a pediatric gastroenterologist (Eugenio Derbez) in Boston.

Then an accident happens: falling, headfirst, 30 feet inside a hollow tree trunk, Anna’s condition goes into spontaneous remission and she, miraculously, recovers. After firefighters pull her out, unharmed, Anna tells her mother that she went to heaven and talked to Jesus during the ordeal.

“This movie is about something that I’ve always held dear and close to my heart,” notes Jennifer Garner. “I’m proud of growing up a good little churchgoing United Methodist girl.”

Other current God-related films include “Risen,” “The Young Messiah” and “God’s Not Dead 2.” What all of these have in common is a sense of optimism and renewal, even if there is suffering and loss.

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Miracles From Heaven” is a sweetly spiritual 6, gently wagging a finger at non-believers.

06

 

“Hello, My Name is Doris”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hello, My Name is Doris” (Red Crown Productions)

 

It doesn’t take much for ditzy 60’ish Doris Miller (Sally Field) to fall in love.  So when the handsome, young art director at her company takes the trouble to gently straighten her lopsided eyeglasses in a crowded elevator, she’s smitten.

His name is John Fremont (Max Greenfield) and he’s recently arrived in Manhattan from Malibu.

Commuting each day to her tiny office cubicle from the cluttered Staten Island home she once shared with her late mother, timid Doris fantasizes about being with John.

That propels her into stalker mode, much to the chagrin of her feisty best friend, Roz (Tyne Daly), whose teenage granddaughter Vivian (Isabella Acres) introduces Doris to Facebook’s social media.

That’s how Doris learns that John’s favorite electronic band is playing at a nearby club and she ends up at a rock concert with him. Stumbling around in a bright yellow outfit, she attracts the attention of the band’s photographer who gets her to pose for the hipster cover of the band’s next album.

Realizing her hoarder instincts and emotional instability, Doris’ brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his callous wife (Wendi McLendon-Covey) urge her to consider selling the family home, an idea Doris adamantly rejects, despite gentle prodding from a hoarder-specializing therapist (Elizabeth Reaser).

Based on “Doris & the Intern,” a short film by Laura Terruso, it’s co-scripted and somewhat confusingly directed by Michael Showalter, who relishes Doris’s eccentricity, encouraging Sally Field (Oscar-winner for “Norma Rae”) to risk one ridiculous mortification after another.

Always appealing Peter Gallagher shows up as a smarmy motivational speaker, and Beth Behrs is likeable as clueless John’s age-appropriate girlfriend who invites Doris to join her knitting circle.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hello, My Name is Doris” is an empathetic 6, an engaging character study.

06

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

Susan Granger’s review of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Although I majored in journalism in college, intending to be a war correspondent, I was out of the country when Tina Fey’s dramedy opened, which is why I’m getting to it a bit late.

This is a fictionalized version of former Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle,” chronicling her stint in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2004 to 2009.

As portrayed by Tina Fey, Barker is a New York broadcast journalist who’s dispatched to Kabul because she’s single and ready to shake up her humdrum life. Upon her arrival, toting a bright orange backpack, she’s immediately upbraided by chauvinistic Gen. Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s none too thrilled about her being embedded with his Marines.

Barker’s befriended by her shy Afghan translator, Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbot), whom she – all too often – endangers by taking thoughtless risks.

Adapted by Robert Carlock (Fey’s longtime writing partner) and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team that made “Focus” & “Crazy, Stupid, Love”), it takes a jab at the longest American military campaign in our nation’s history by pointing out that – at least in one case – our “help” is actually detrimental to the well-being of the women in a local village.

That’s something Barker discovers only when she’s beckoned by a group of its burka-clad residents.

Hard-partying Margot Robbie plays Barker’s frenemy, Tanya Vanderpoel, while Martin Freeman is Iain MacKelpie, the Scottish photographer who winds up in Barker’s bed, much to the chagrin of Alfred Molina as Ali Massoud Sadiq, a high-ranking government official who’s determined to seduce her.

But, as this character study evolves, it’s Tina’s triumph from beginning to end, proving that this tart-talking comedienne is equally adept at revealing her vulnerability in a drama, particularly when she realizes that she’s become addicted to danger – evoking memories of “The Hurt Locker” (2008).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is an insightful 7. As for the military slang title, refer to what its initials spell.

07

 

 

“Eye in the Sky”

Susan Granger’s review of “Eye in the Sky” (Bleecker Street Media)

 

Starring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, this timely British thriller about drone warfare turns out to be a real nail-biter.

It begins in a Cabinet office in London, where Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Rickman) and several officials realize they’ve ascertained the exact location in Nairobi, Kenya, where several people on their Most Wanted list have convened, including a radicalized British woman with an Al-Shabaab militant.

The titular ‘Eye in the Sky’ is an American drone, piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from a bunker in Nevada, while British Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) remotely commands a team of local Kenyan troops, hidden in a nearby warehouse, ready to capture, not kill, the woman and her conspirators.

But when an onsite operative, Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), flies a tiny drone, resembling a bug, into the target’s house, it feeds back pictures of terrorists’ preparations for an imminent suicide attack, perhaps at a crowded shopping mall, like before.

“Well, this changes things,” Powell notes, recommending that a Hellfire missile immediately destroy the building and its occupants.

Problem is: the politicians are wary of endorsing a bombing; they’re particularly concerned about collateral damage, since there’s a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), selling fresh-baked bread nearby.

So, one after another, they “refer up” to Britain’s Foreign Minister, the U.S. Secretary of State, etc. Stalling makes the military impatient but sympathy has been aroused for the appealing youngster who, unwittingly, is directly in harm’s way.

Thoughtfully scripted by Guy Hibbert and tautly directed by Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi,” “Rendition”), it’s a powerfully restrained examination of the ethics and moral quandaries involved in remote-controlled warfare.

While Helen Mirren is ruthlessly formidable, perhaps most memorable moments come from Barkhad Abdi, the Oscar-nominated Somali pirate who confronted Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips.”

And it’s Alan Rickman who utters the concluding pronouncement, “Never tell a soldier that he doesn’t know the cost of war.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Eye in the Sky” is an edge-of-your-seat suspenseful 7, delineating the new rules of engagement.

07

“The Humans”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Humans” (Helen Hayes Theatre – March, 2016)

 

On Thanksgiving, the Irish-American Blake family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, gathers at the creepy Chinatown apartment recently acquired by daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard Saad (Arian Moayed).

It’s a grungy ground-floor/basement duplex which, as her father Erik (Reed Birney) notes, is in a flood zone and disturbingly close to the downed World Trade Center.

Twentysomething Brigid is an aspiring composer/musician, working as a waitress, while thirtyish Richard is completing his Master’s in social work with a trust fund in his future.

Underneath the illusion of gaiety, there’s tension-filled emotional quicksand. The highly-stressed Blakes are struggling with socioeconomic, medical and romantic problems, to mention only a few agonies stacked on their plates.

Erik and his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have disturbing news that they’re reluctant to reveal, while Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer who was recently dumped by her girl-friend, is facing a serious illness. And then there’s Fiona a.k.a. “Momo” (Lauren Klein), Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother, suffering from dementia.

Momo mutters gibberish, as if to emphasize the entire, lower-middle-class family’s inherent difficulty with communication.

This is the third play by Stephen Karam, moved intact from the Laura Pels Theatre, having been nurtured by the Roundabout Theatre’s Off-Broadway wing.

Evolving on David Zinn’s two-level set with Justin Townsend’s gloomy lighting, it’s subtly directed by Joe Mantello, and punctuated by what the playwright describes as “a sickening thud” from the apartment above – that’s accurately rendered by sound designer Fitz Patton.

Led by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, the cast is uniformly superb. But with no resolution in sight, Karam delivers an ultra-naturalistic, even banal, slice-of-life drama that leaves the audience with a wrenching sense of dread and little hope for the future.

Or, as Erik says, “Whatever gifts God’s given us, in the end, everything you have goes…”

As for the title, it stems from Richard’s unsettling description of his favorite comic book series, revolving around a race of monsters who, idiosyncratically, fear humans.

FYI: “The Humans” is performed without an intermission and there’s a posted warning that if you leave your seat for any reason during the performance, you will not be permitted to return.