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“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.

“Earth to Echo”

Susan Granger’s review of “Earth to Echo” (Relativity Media)

 

For family fun at the movies, you can’t beat this shameless sci-fi update of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.”

It begins with three preteens, inseparable friends, whose families are being forced to move out of their middle-class neighborhood in suburban Nevada because of a highway construction project. There’s tech-savvy Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), who documents his every waking moment on a video camera; Alex (Teo Halm), an earnest foster kid with sensitive separation issues; and nerdy Munch (Reese Hartwig), whose awkwardness adds comic relief.

Toting a video camera, they plan one last night together, biking out into the desert to investigate odd messages and a mysterious map that has “barfed up” on their cellphones. That’s where they find an odd-looking cylinder, lying on the ground next to a transformer. It turns out to be a damaged little alien that resembles a robotic owl with glowing blue eyes.  Because of the sound of its electronic chirps, they dub it Echo, and learn – from asking simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions – that it desperately needs some missing metallic parts in order to return ‘home’ to its mother ship.  That’s when they’re unexpectedly joined by their pretty-and-popular classmate, Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt), who stands up to the shadowy, quasi-government bad guys.

Audaciously scripted by Henry Gayden – with nostalgic nods to “The Goonies,” “Stand by Me,” “Flight of the Navigator,”  “WALL-E,” “Short Circuit” and “Super 8,” as well as numerous found-footage, mock-documentaries – and energetically directed by Dave Green, it copies most of “E.T.” plot points, including youthful  vulnerability and empowerment, bicycles, even the movie poster. To the first-time filmmakers’ credit, they cleverly update the concept to the cellphone era and utilize the natural talents of these appealing screen newcomers.  The background of this low-budget project is intriguing, since it was developed and made in 2012 at Disney as “Untitled Wolf Adventure;” and for inexplicable reasons, it was surreptitiously sold to Relativity Media.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Earth to Echo” is a sweet, extraterrestrial 7, filled with wonder and adventure.

“Le Chef”

Susan Granger’s review of “Le Chef” (Cohen Media Group)

 

The popularity of movies featuring delectable food perhaps began with “Tom Jones” (1963) and has continued with “Babette’s Feast” (1987), “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992), “Big Night” (1996) and “Ratatouille” (2007), among others. More recently, there’s Jon Favreau’s “Chef” (2014) – which is remarkably similar to this story in plot.

Stern and stubborn Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Reno) is a venerable celebrity chef who may lose control of Cargo Lagarde, his Paris restaurant, because the new CEO/owner Stanislas Matter (Julien Boisselier) thinks his traditional haute-cuisine is old-toque, despite his having earned the eatery’s three Michelin stars. Not only does ruthless Matter start insisting that Legarde use cheaper, chemical-laden ingredients, but he is also seriously considering hiring a young, trendy Spanish chef who specializes in the latest craze of molecular gastronomy. That’s when Alexandre discovers Jacky Bonnot (Michael Youn), a self-taught, aspiring chef whose rebellious and domineering personality gets him fired from job after job. Propelled by his very pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaelle Agogue), Jacky is ostensibly working as a handyman/painter at a retirement home, while he fulfills his passion by creating innovative meals for its elderly residents. An instinctive, culinary genius, Jacky is fearlessly original in the kitchen and Alexandre is desperate, but they’re such disparate personalities that the question arises: can the two of them work together?

Formulaically scripted as a far-fetched odd-couple farce by director Daniel Cohen, it’s primarily memorable for its cast.  Internationally famous for “The Professional,” “Mission Impossible,” “The DaVinci Code,” “La Femme Nikita,” and 2002’s “Jet Lag” (in which he also played a troubled chef), Jean Reno’s comic reactions are reliably appealing, particularly as he tries to relate to his grad student daughter Amandine (Salome Sevenin) and her passion for Russian literature, while comedian/TV personality Michael Youn (“Around the World in 80 Days”) is deliciously quirky. Also on the minus side, it’s rampant with racial/ethnic stereotypes which prove more than a bit disconcerting.

In French with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Le Chef” is a frothy 5, a mildly amusing aperitif.

IMAX “Journey to the South Pacific”

Susan Granger’s review of “Journey to the South Pacific” (IMAX at Norwalk Maritime Aquarium)

This may be your first – and only chance – to visit the remote West Papua islands of Indonesia, where the Indian Ocean mingles with the Pacific. Join an intrepid 13 year-old named Jawi from the tiny village of Sawinggrai on the island of Gam for a two-month trip aboard the Kalabia, a fishing trawler-turned-floating school, to learn about the archipelago and how to preserve the mangrove-studded coral reef that surrounds his home.

Narrated by Cate Blanchett, Jawi’s adventure begins at home, where he and his young friends dive on a daily basis, gauging the tide and currents, while noting the disappearance of the big fish that used to frequent their reefs, acknowledging, “There’s wisdom in the old ways.” That’s why he is chosen to take this voyage of discovery, so he can learn how other islanders have reversed the consequences of overfishing and polluting their wondrous aquatic world and, in turn, pass that information onto another generation who will serve as conservators of their South Pacific paradise.

Writer/director/editor Stephen Judson (“Everest”) works with director Greg MacGillivray (“The Living Sea,” “Dolphins”), who specializes in these big-format nature films. Cinematographer Howard Hall’s lyrical underwater photography surpasses anything done before, punctuated by Steve Wood’s guitar-based musical score. The vibrant seascape teems with an estimated 2,000 species of marine life, including spawning anchovies, tiny sea horses, undulating manta rays and endangered giant leatherback turtles that lay eggs in the sand. But it’s Jawi who propels the most exciting sequence when he voices his fear and overcomes it, gamely swimming with a 40-foot-long spotted whale shark.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Journey to the South Pacific” is a spectacular 7. In a two-fer offer, visitors to South Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium can also visit a lush aviary and feed sweet nectar to 50 free-flying “Lorikeets,” which are dazzling, medium-sized parrots native to the rainforests and woodlands of the South Pacific. You can get more information about IMAX times and Lorikeet visits by calling (203) 852-0700 or log onto www.maritimeaquarium.org.

 

“Transformers: Age of Extinction”

Susan Granger’s review of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Masquerading as a movie, Michael Bay’s latest sci-fi extravaganza is an almost three-hour long video game, relentlessly promoting Hasbro toys and what-turns-out-to-be disgruntled Chinese sponsors.

It begins with alien spaceships attacking dinosaurs. Eons later, an officious blonde scientist is in the Arctic, inspecting the metallic remains of a Dinobot, declaring that it will change our view of the history of the world. Then there’s a perfectly coiffed, exquisitely made-up ‘schoolgirl,’ clad in short-shorts, opening mail on a farm in the Midwest and a government agent declaring that all Transformers must be wiped out. These scenes are disjointed and disconnected, as are most that follow.

Thinking he’s buying scrap metal, a Texas inventor, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), acquires a battered, old truck which turns out to be the badly injured Autobot leader, intrepid Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, who has been lending his stentorian tones to the cartoon series since 1984). Widower Yeager is raising a rebellious 17 year-old daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), who, not surprisingly, has a racecar-driving boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor). Meanwhile, there’s this scientist (Stanley Tucci), working for a nasty Black Ops bully (Kelsey Grammer) and a subversive ‘seed’ origin story about Dinobots being created as weapons by ancient Autobots.  The newest mechanical villain is Galvetron, created from the remains of Megatron, the evil Decepticon destroyed in 2011’s “Dark of the Moon.”

Illogically scripted by Ehren Kruger and self-indulgently directed by Michael Bay, this fourth installment in the “Transformers” series is completely incoherent and filled with massive explosions which demolition experts who work on his movies refer to as “Bayhem.” If you opt for 3-D, you’re lavishly showered with splintered metal debris, accompanied by deafening noise. On the plus side, Industrial Light & Magic’s CGI robotic shape-shifting is seamless, and Mark Walhberg is a far more appealing protagonist than Shia LaBeouf, who propelled previous films.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is an abysmal 2. Unless you’re really into techie toys, it’s excruciating to watch – a tortuous endurance test.

“The Signal”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Signal” (Focus Features)

 

If you like weird sci-fi, William Eubank’s low-budget thriller should intrigue you. When it begins, three friends from M.I.T. are heading cross-country from Cambridge in an old Volvo.  Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving Nick’s girl-friend Haley (Olivia Cooke) to California.  She’ll only be transferring to Cal Tech for a year on a fellowship, but Nick’s deeply upset because he has a crippling degenerative disease and knows his disability will only progress further.

When they stop overnight at a motel, Nick and Jonah realize a mysterious hacker named Nomad has been tracking them. Nomad previously broke into MIT’s computers and caused network problems for both of them. So they decide to turn-the-tables and track Nomad. A GPS signal indicates he’s not far away so they all agree to a detour into the Nevada desert. Problem is: they arrive at Nomad’s location late at night. It appears to be an abandoned bunker that’s isolated and creepy – like out of the “Blair Witch Project.”

After blacking out, Nick wakes up, completely confused, but incarcerated underground in a secret government facility.  Subjected to relentless questioning by Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), he learns that he’s been exposed to an EBE – an extra-biological entity. An alien encounter. That’s why he’s in quarantine and everyone is wearing Hazmat suits. Determined to find his friends and escape to the surface, yet dazed by repetitive flashbacks to his earlier life as a cross-country runner, determined Nick encounters all sorts of obstacles, only to discover mysterious forces he’d never even imagined.

Scripted by Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio and director William Eubank, its audio-visual effectiveness belies its simplicity, perhaps because Eubank started as a cinematographer and obviously worked closely with director of photography David Lanzenberg and editor Brian Berdan, making the most of Meghan C. Rogers’ production design.  Propelling the narrative, Aussie Brenton Thwaites is an appealing leading man, adding “Maleficent,” “Oculus” and “The Giver” to his resume.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Signal” is a slyly stylish 6 – and strangely surreal.